Monday, February 8, 2016

Don't Feed the Trolls

Unlike some of my more internet-active friends and colleagues, I don't have a very high profile in cyberspace. Yes, I write this blog, and occasionally contribute to another one; in neither case do I usually get much more than 100 readers. I'm not on Twitter, much less do I join things like Twitter Fight Club. I left my penchant for internet argumentation behind a long time ago, back when arguments were conducted on Usenet.

Because of this, I don't encounter internet trolls very often. I am especially unlikely to be the target of one. This blog does have a comments section, which I keep moderated (mostly to keep the spambots from filling the comments with links). But it rarely gets used, especially by people inclined to disagree with me in an unpleasant fashion.

So when I do get trolled, it's something of a novelty to me. This past week, somebody with a very different opinion apparently stumbled across one of my old posts (you can see the original post here) and decided to take umbrage with this retort (presented in its entirety and unedited):
"sticks" and "running away"? Are you kidding me? I'll keep my guns so anyone breaking into my house will have holes in them instead of me running away while my 6 year old tries to fight them off with sticks since she can't run as fast as an adult, thank you. You are clearly a moron.
Since I regularly encourage people to consider the ideas of others, I feel bound to do the same here. So setting aside the tone and the obligatory epithet, let me engage this particular bit of debate to see what we might learn from it.

There are two things that strike me as interesting about this response:

1) The poster assumes a specific threat scenario in isolation and insists on having a gun to deal with that scenario. In this case, that scenario is home invasion with intent to harm. If this person were more familiar with my work, they would know that I have acknowledged that guns are, in fact, a useful tool for self-defense in that setting. But I can't expect people to have read everything (or even anything) I've written before.

What's interesting about this particular threat assumption is that it is one of the most widely cited justifications for owning a gun - defending the home against someone breaking in with intent to harm. While such things do happen, they are exceedingly rare. Most burglars break in with intent to steal, and would rather not encounter anybody, because encountering people is always dangerous - that's why most home robberies occur while the occupants are away. You can see the relevant statistics, compiled by the US Department of Justice, here. Out of all home break-ins, the number of incidents of violence where the criminal was armed with a gun is a small fraction of a small fraction.

Even given such long odds, it might be reasonable to keep a gun at home to deal with those rare cases - if the presence of the gun did not also make other dangers more likely. But we know that having a gun in the house increases the odds of all sorts of other events, including suicides and accidental shootings. Just a couple of weeks ago I wrote about a father who thought apparently very much as this commenter did. The child he presumably wanted to protect is now dead by his own hand. Alternatively, what happens to the life of this mother or father if that 6 year old gets ahold of the gun? (Or if there's a younger sibling?)

If medical science offered a vaccine that was 99% effective against a very rare disease, but which increased your likelihood of dying from many other things, how many of us would take it? In medicine we weigh risks and benefits. This particular response suggests an unwillingness to do so, and an assumption that one particular kind of threat (home invasion) can be dealt with in isolation from all of the other potential side effects of having guns available in the home.

2) In addition to the rational and tactical calculations at play here, there is a moral calculation that I continue to find deeply troubling. It's contained in this fragment:
I'll keep my guns so anyone breaking into my house will have holes in them instead of me running away
The subsequent clause about leaving the 6 year old behind to fend for herself is classic troll-bait. Clearly no parent is going to abandon a child, but will stand and defend that child with whatever is available. Let's leave that aside for a moment.

The moral calculation here is this: if you break into my home, I am justified in killing you. I'm not interested in whether this is a legal defense or not, but whether it constitutes an effective moral justification.

My unease with this calculation starts with a point both unassailable and very difficult to acknowledge: the person breaking into my house is a human being. Yes, that person is transgressing some very fundamental rules. And yes, that person may have intent to do me harm - or he (or she) may not. But none of this takes away the person's basic humanity.

For those who share the Christian faith, this is a particularly difficult test of the Gospel's clear injunction:
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matthew)
I do not know if the person who offered the comment above claims to be a Christian or not. I know that there are plenty of Christians who go to church on a regular basis, and who hold these same scriptures to be the Word of God, who would nevertheless agree with the commenter that it's appropriate to put  (lethal) holes in the home invader. These views, to me, simply aren't compatible.

Moreover, the Old Testament reference made here by Jesus is often itself misunderstood. The original language in Exodus 21 ("eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot") was intended not as a statement of vengeance but as a limitation on humanity's tendency to mete out disproportionate vengeance. A modern American version goes something like this quote from the movie The Untouchables:
You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. *That's* the *Chicago* way!
Limiting retribution in proportion to the harm suffered was, for the ancient Hebrew culture, a moral advance. It insured that no one would, in anger and fear, cause greater harm than had already been caused.

In this light, killing in response to a home invasion is (pun intended) moral overkill. It fails the moral test of proportionality which exists, in some form or another, in nearly all major world religions and philosophical systems. It is, as I have argued elsewhere, barbaric.

So while I can see to some degree where this particular troll is coming from, I cannot agree with any of the ideas he or she presents. They are, as I have said so many times before, rooted simply in fear - fear of a vividly imaginable (if highly unlikely) threat which leads to anger, hatred, and dehumanization. Others who share that fear will likely find the commenter's ideas laudable. I hope many of us can escape the same fate.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear Itself

I take the title of this post, of course, from FDR's first inaugural address in 1933. As I pointed out recently, FDR uttered those words in a time of far greater crisis than anything the United States now faces.

But in this presidential campaign season, most of we hear about is what we should be afraid of. Already I am seeing dire warnings from both Left and Right of how our country will collapse if this or that candidate is elected. There is plenty of rhetoric, both from candidates and from partisans, about "disasters" and our nation "going off a cliff". It's enough to call to mind Chuck Norris' prediction four years ago of "1000 years of darkness" if Obama were re-elected. (I've not yet noticed any unusual amounts of darkness in the last four years...)

This is not to say that we don't have challenges. And it's not that I don't have preferences among the candidates - I like some and dislike others. I'm not interested in discussing those things, at least not here, because there are plenty of other people already doing so. Where I see the national conversation lacking is in the arena of anyone willing to call bulls**t on the increasingly extreme predictions of apocalyptic futures if some candidate wins this or that electoral contest.

So that's my aim here - to call BS on all of the "sky is falling" rhetoric, from whatever side and direction. You should not, in fact, be afraid. Here are several reasons why:

• Terrorism is not the existential crisis that politicians want you to think it is. By now, anybody who cares about facts knows the numbers: you're more likely to be killed by furniture than by terrorists, your odds of even being near a terrorist attack are lower than your odds of being struck by lightning, etc. To the raw data, political scientists can add perspective: all of the anti-Western terrorists in the world put together don't have a measurable fraction of the military power of the US. That's not to say they can't cause damage - they can, and they often do, usually to each other first and foremost. But given the geographic scope and range of the terrorist organizations involved, their disparate and often contradictory goals, and the general resilience and strength of modern wealthy societies, there's just no way these clowns can put a dent in our existence. They can kill a few people and blow up a few things, but that's it. They cannot credibly threaten America or "our way of life". We are not 100% safe against everything, but we are safer than nearly any society in the history of humanity.

• The Presidency is not nearly as important, or as powerful, as we think it is. Sometimes I think the greatest punishment for Donald Trump would be to elect him President and then watch him implode in frustration as he realizes just how limited the power of the position is. No matter who becomes President next, that person will have to deal with Congress, the Supreme Court, and the array of interests and preferences held by various sectors of society. Gilens and Page (2014) have pointed out that the preferences of the masses don't have much effect on policy; outcomes tend to be more in line with what the rich and powerful want. Those same forces will be at play in 2017 just as they were in 2015. That's not to say that we might not prefer some policy directions over others, and it's certainly not to argue that Presidents don't matter at all. But it is far beyond the capacity of any President to destroy the United States or bring down 1000 years of darkness. A bad President can cause a lot of damage, but again this doesn't rise to the level of an existential crisis.

• Regardless of who takes the Presidency in 2017, some bad things and some good things are going to happen over the next four years. Whoever sits in the Oval Office will have limited ability to stop the bad things from happening, and will likewise have limited ability to make good things happen that weren't going to happen otherwise. Most of the effects are marginal. The George W Bush administration's response to Katrina was bad, and it made a very bad situation worse - but Katrina was coming regardless. Francois Hollande was powerless to stop the Paris attacks. And despite badly overheated political rhetoric, Obama is not to blame for the financial crisis (neither, except in a marginal way, was George W). Chances are good that whatever happens, the US will deal with it - sometimes well, sometimes poorly. We must, of course, do our best to meet every challenge. But our survival, either as a country or as a population, does not depend on who sits in the White House.

• Lastly, as electoral seasons heat up there is always a hefty infusion of religious rhetoric that comes along for the ride. In the United States in particular, many people are guided in their voting choices by their understanding of their faith - in particular, their Christian faith (being the majority religion). For those who would invoke Christianity in the name of supporting this or that political position (what C.S. Lewis' devil Screwtape derisively referred to as "Christianity and..."), remember that the more you sound the alarm of fear the farther you are moving from the Gospel you supposedly profess. "Do not be afraid" is the single most repeated commandment in the Bible. The Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, are chock full of exhortations to put aside fear and to trust in the provenance of God. They also remind us of the superiority of spiritual concerns over material (or political) ones. There is no theological justification for fear, especially fear of this or that political ruler. Paul did not fear the Roman Empire, a far more powerful and draconian system than any we could face. Prophets and apostles throughout the Bible moved amongst tyrants and ruthless kings. What possible claim can you make to be afraid of a Bernie Sanders or a Ted Cruz?

There are issues of importance facing our society - as there always are. Political leadership can make a difference, but rarely if ever can it remake the world entirely. This is not "the most important election of our lifetimes", and it certainly is not "a turning point in our history" - any more than last year was, or two years from now will be. ALL moments in history are turning points. We are much better off - we make better decisions and we become our better selves - when we face each of those moments without fear. So set aside the "sky is falling" BS, move the fear to the back burner, and engage the issues and candidates from something other than panic and dread.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

I Don't Want to Talk About Donald Trump

If you've been following the 2016 American Presidential election campaign at all, you know that 95% of the campaign coverage has been devoted to Donald Trump. I've seen some really smart stuff written about Trump in recent days, including this gem from my friend Peter Trumbore. For a similar take by a different author, you can check this piece out as well.

It has been well-noted by now that Trump is a master at dominating the news cycle. He has gotten enormous amounts of attention by saying outrageous things. This is clearly a big part of his strategy - maybe the whole of it. Everywhere he goes (which is to say, everywhere on the nation's airwaves and social media) he causes arguments. He is, in a very real sense, the center of attention.

Which is precisely why I don't want to talk about him. It's not just that I dislike him as a leader and as a person (though I do). More importantly, I dislike the fact that we spend an enormous amount of time talking about things that don't matter nearly as much as the stuff we're not talking about. Trump, in this sense, is a symptom of a broken political system that seems incapable of fostering the kinds of conversations we really need to have as a society.

I've pointed this out in other contexts before, so this is not a new argument for me (see here and here and here, as examples). A mentor of mine in higher education some years ago was fond of saying, "college is a conversation". This is true of society as well. We go along and live our lives, but what defines us as a community is the conversations we have with each other. The better those conversations are, the stronger our communities are. This is yet another way in which life isn't the end result of a process - life is process.

I see little hope, at least through the primary season, that our political process is going to produce conversations that would be useful for us as a country. We're not talking about climate change and what (if anything) to do about it. We're not talking about major technological trends (in energy and elsewhere) that will change the way we live. We're not talking about relations between groups (black & white, gay & straight, and so many other divisions) and how to make them better so we can have a more just society. We're not talking about how we want our economy to work and who should benefit from what. We're not talking about how our resources should be distributed, and what our top priorities should be. Instead, we're talking about an obnoxious bully with a bad hairpiece.

This will sound counterintuitive, for a political scientist, but if I have one request it is this: stop paying attention to the Presidential campaign. Spend a little bit of time picking your favorite candidate and then shut the rest of it out. It is a waste of time, it is imparting enormous amounts of negativity across the country, and it isn't producing anything of value. Find a way to have a conversation about something else with your friends, your neighbors, your coworkers, online. When the time comes, go and vote and then forget about it.

It is elementary that we only achieve things that matter when we decide to focus on the things that matter. Maybe later this year, the Presidential campaign will reach that stage. For now, I'm going to find something else to think about.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Oregon Occupation: What Kind of Politics Do We Want?

Now that the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by a band of armed anti-government protesters appears to be mostly over, we can step back and see if there's anything to be learned from the whole mess. The answer may be "not much," insofar as the whole thing was a bit of a farce (and widely treated as such) from the beginning, but I think there are some significant points to consider.

The chief question, one raised every time a group of citizens finds itself opposed to a government policy, is: how is opposition to be legitimately expressed? If I don't like a government policy, what should (or shouldn't) I try to do about it, and what are the limits to my opposition?

To talk of limits to opposition seems almost countercultural in these days of open political-tribal warfare in which politicians and political organizations have done almost everything short of direct violence against each other. Certainly the rhetoric of most politics, whether in campaigns for office or in the constant, ongoing "debates" over this or that policy issue, does not admit to any limits. The mantra is, we are right and they are wrong and we must do whatever it takes to prevail.

This is great for getting masses riled up (and, as the proverb has it, separating fools from their money), but what does it really mean? The Bundys and their followers apparently took this rhetoric seriously. They had a particular view on government policy towards federally-owned lands, and they chose to arm themselves, occupy a (remote) set of federal buildings, and issue demands until they were met.

Setting aside their views on the particular issues of federal land management and ownership, their strategy was both ridiculous and doomed to failure from the start. It was ridiculous in that no government and no society can function if the means of opposition is to take up arms and issue demands. If groups did this every time they didn't like a policy decision, we would quickly become a country of armed camps. It's an absurd way to conduct politics.

No government, of any kind, is going to give in to demands under such circumstances. To do otherwise would set a precedent in which groups would know that if they want to win on their pet issue, they need to arm themselves and find some federal building (or set of employees) to take hostage. The idea of any government - democratic, authoritarian, or anything else - meeting such a demand is extremely difficult to entertain.

What the Bundy boys did was not just misunderstand the law, or the Constitution. They misunderstood politics fundamentally. In any society, there is ultimately a choice to be made about how resources will be allocated and distributed and how rules will be established and maintained. Either there is a process for establishing those rules that involves consultation and assent from some (or all) of the population, or the rules are established and enforced by whoever has the most and biggest guns. Law and violence are the basic choices here. Either we agree on something, or we fight it out.

The Bundys seemed to want to have it both ways. They made an argument based on their interpretation of law, yet they denied our entire system of government designed to set up and maintain laws. They tried to use force (of a sort) to get the government to agree with their interpretation of the law. They broke the law in order to try to change it.

Some sympathizers have taken this logic to equate the Bundy movement with MLK and the civil rights marchers. The equation is of course absurd. MLK understood that when you break the law, you face the consequences. He voluntarily went to jail to prove a point, to shock the conscience of the nation. He didn't break the law and then hide behind a gun, daring the government to arrest him. His strategy was clear: he wanted through action and example to convince a majority of Americans that his cause was right and his preferred laws and policies were good ones. In this he succeeded to a substantial degree.

So changing policy through force and demand is out. No matter what political system you operate under, it doesn't work and it doesn't make any sense. Small wonder the occupiers in Oregon have garnered such widespread scorn.

In our current political climate, however, this does leave the rest of us wondering how politics should be conducted. We have seen a decades-long escalation of rhetoric calling for all-or-nothing solutions. Promises to "take back America". Strategies to create a "permanent majority". These things don't involve guns or shooting, but they do call into question what kind of society we want.

If your approach to politics is predicated on achieving some ideal future in which everybody agrees with you, I have bad news for you: there will always be people who disagree. Sometimes there will be more people who disagree with you than agree with you. Sometimes you will be on the winning side, sometimes on the losing side. If you want to participate in society and in politics, you have to accept that. You also might want to consider that you could work with people of differing views to get things done that you both can agree on.

In the end, we forget a key truth: the process is far more important than any particular outcome. There will always be another issue, another policy, another law that we want or hate. But the way we handle and deal with each other in reaching those outcomes, day after day, is in the end what defines us.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

We Have Met the Enemy

A lot of time slipped by in November and December. It was almost a full two months between my last blog post of 2015 and my first one of 2016. What follows was going to be the first of this year, but a tragedy occurred down the road from where I live and I responded to that instead.

A lot happened during those two months of silence. Radicalized civilians shot up an office party in California. In Paris, terrorists affiliated with the Daesh/Islamic State movement attacked a series of targets across the city, killing many. Donald Trump surged to the top of the headlines with calls to ban Muslims from entering the US, making favorable references to the Japanese-American internment camps of the 1940s. Tensions between black communities and police continued to flare with new revelations about unarmed young black men gunned down by police officers.

Behind all of this there is a lot of anger, fueled by a lot of fear. In the United States, the flames of fear are being fanned by politicians of all stripes, by the media (fear sells!), and by our own collective sense of angst. We don't agree on much, but we do agree that things aren't right.

I don't have solutions to offer to fix everything. I can't point to a candidate and say, "If only that person becomes President, everything will be great!" (and if you believe this about any candidate, please stop - the world doesn't work that way). Most blogging and op-ed writing identifies problems, and some suggest (usually simplified) solutions. I have nothing to add on either front.

Instead, I want to offer a different view. FDR once famously said, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." He said this in his first inaugural address in 1933, at a time when Americans were in the depth of the Great Recession, the United States was far weaker and more vulnerable in the world than it is today, and systematic racial violence was still the order of the day in much of the country. Despite those dreadful facts, he was right. Fear exists in the mind.

Contrast the start of FDR's presidency to our own day. The US economy is the largest it's ever been and the largest and wealthiest in the world. More broadly, the global economy taken as a whole has never before produced this much wealth. The combined total of economic production for the world, per person, has nearly doubled in the last 15 years. Never before have humanity in general, or Americans in particular, had as much prosperity as we do today.

Similarly, we have never been less threatened by war. Despite the terrible headlines (and terrible realities) in Syria, Libya, and a few other spots, war (measured by how many people it kills) is a smaller problem now than at any point in the past 75 or more years.

We can see similar trends in violent crime within the US (which has been declining since the early-mid 1990s, and is now back to levels not seen since the 1960s when the population was 50% less than today), terrorist attacks against the United States, and on a number of other fronts. In the major categories of things humanity is afraid of (being killed suddenly and starving to death over time), we have never been better off than we are today.

I make this point because the gap between the macro-level facts and our fears is enormous and seems to be growing larger. Contrast this to past periods in history when people were legitimately frightened of important things. In the early 1800s, for example, there was a worldwide epidemic of crop failures and famines (caused, as it turns out, by a massive volcanic eruption in the South Pacific that was barely noticed at the time). Thousands died of starvation, millions became refugees, and the political and cultural landscape of much of the world was rewritten. In Europe, authoritarianism made a comeback against the early revolutionary gains of the Enlightenment as people decided that freedom could be sacrificed for food and safety.

Compare that world to our time - and then to the rhetoric we hear every day. Donald Trump and Daesh do share something in common - they have found ways to elevate people's fears, to paint a picture of a world gone not just wrong but horribly wrong, so wrong that radical and formerly unthinkable action must be taken. These dystopian views are so far removed from reality that those of us who don't share them are left shaking our heads at the insanity of it all.

Which brings us back to FDR. The core reality - the real problem, if you will - is not Mexican immigration, or Daesh, or vaccines, or impending poverty, or anything else. It is fear. The problem is not with the world, it is how we see and respond to the world.

To be clear, there are real problems. The water in Flint, Michigan really is poisoned. The young black man in South Chicago really does have cause to fear both his neighbors and the police. Syrians really do live in fear of their lives, so much so that perilous voyages on the sea may seem reasonably better than staying put. The distribution of wealth is changing in ways that advantage a very few and disadvantage nearly everybody else. We do not live in Utopia.

But notice what all of these problems have in common: they are created by us. We have the technology and the ability to provide clean water to the residents of Flint, just as we do in nearly every other community in the US. Our economic problems are not because we don't have enough wealth to go around, they are because we have created systems in our societies that distribute that wealth in poor ways. Where people are dying violent deaths, it is not over scarce resources needed to survive but over twisted ideas about what the world should be like and how we should bring about a better future.

The most pithy wisdom I can think of these days comes not from a political leader, but from Walt Kelly, one of the greatest cartoonists of the 20th century. In 1970 Kelly famously took an old 19th century historical phrase ("We have met the enemy and they are ours") and turned it on its head: "We have met the enemy, and he is us". Used originally for Earth Day and the environment, this bit of wisdom can be applied to almost all of the problems we face today - problems that are not nearly as large as our "leaders" would have us believe, and problems that all have solutions if we can only sit down together and figure them out.

If we want things to get better - whatever those things are - there are really only two things we need to keep in mind:

1) "We" is everybody.
2) Fear is one thing we can each control.

Everything else is details.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Guns and the Very Real Tragedy of the Security Dilemma

This is a sad way to start a blogging year, but so be it. I've got a longer piece rattling around in my head, which I hope to find time to write down sometime soon.

Given all that I've written about guns and self-defense, this story (sadly, one of far too many) jumped out at me:
Ohio man fatally shoots teen son he mistook for an intruder
I've written before, in more theoretical terms, about the security dilemma, the nature of guns as an offense-dominant technology, and the impact that has on civilian self-defense situations. In short, what we have known for decades as political scientists tells us that relying on guns for self-defense in interpersonal situations is likely to lead to all sorts of tragedies of unnecessary escalation, just as tends to happen internationally.

The story referenced above, just down the road from where I live, shows exactly how this works in real life. The important things to understand here are the details that are not discussed in the story, but which can be easily inferred.

We know that the father in the story went down to his basement upon hearing a noise. He went down expecting to encounter an intruder, or at least with the thought that this was a real possibility. That speaks to both the man's mindset and, possibly, to the neighborhood he lives in. Given the importance of mental preparedness in self-defense, this in and of itself is not a mistake.

We are then told that the father opened a door, the son appeared suddenly, and the father shot him. The shooting is referred to as "accidental", which is one sense it was - the father clearly did not intend to shoot his son. It's the nature of that "accident", however, that needs to be examined.

In order for this story to be true - and we have no reason to believe it is not - a few things must also be true:

- The father had the gun in his hand, with his finger on the trigger, when his son appeared.
- The barrel of the gun would likely have been brought to bear, i.e. pointing forward towards a potential target, prior to his opening the door.
- At the level of muscular response and control, the father almost certainly meant to pull the trigger. Modern guns do not "accidentally" go off on their own; they fire only when the trigger is pulled, an action which takes a small but non-trivial amount of force applied in a particular way.

It seems certain that the muscular response of pulling the trigger on a weapon already brought to bear on a potential target occurred before the father had a chance to ascertain whether the human figure who suddenly appeared before him was his son or a stranger. This, of course, is the crux of the "accident" - that the father, through muscle reflex or miscalculation, fired the weapon before determining the nature of the target. The mistake was in adopting a posture in which the decision to fire would be taken before he had time to determine what the target was.

It is possible that being startled by the sudden appearance of a person, especially at close range, could have contributed to the firing. By itself, I find this a less-than-satisfying explanation - the instinctive human reaction to being startled is to open the hand, not to squeeze it tighter. This is why startled people tend to drop things. It's certainly true that such a reflex could be overridden with practice - but that would involve deliberate effort on the father's part to change his reflexes so as to fire faster in a startle situation, which suggests a form of culpability as well.

So this is what an "offense-dominant security dilemma" looks like in real life. A father, fearing for himself and his home, adopts a hair-trigger posture and fires at the first sign of possible danger, without taking the second or two needed to ascertain the nature of the threat. He appears not to have made any attempt to establish verbal contact with the possible intruder, or to warn any potential intruders that he was armed. Doing so could have saved the son's life and averted tragedy, but would probably have seemed at the time to the father as putting him at unnecessary risk.

This is exactly why, in security dilemmas, there is no "better safe than sorry". All choices have the potential for disaster. My long-running problem with the most ardent advocates of guns as the "ultimate" in self-defense is that they ignore this reality completely and treat guns as a magic talisman that can ward off all evils.

If you keep a gun for self-defense, by all means train yourself. This has nothing to do with going to a firing range - in this example, the father was apparently quite an effective shot. This means training yourself in scenario thinking under pressure, the mental discipline of being able to maintain control of your options and apply force judiciously - including not applying force when it's not necessary. No CCW course in the land will teach you this, but you absolutely need to learn it anyway. Lives depend on it.

My personal alternative, of course, is to both engage in such training and to rely on less offense-dominated self-defense strategies. These are widely available and can be very effective - and they have the added benefit that you don't need to worry about whether your family will end up victims of your own weapon in your own home.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Going Out On a Limb on Race

Let me state the obvious up front: I'm a white man in a privileged position. I have tenure, rank, and an administrative position of some authority within a university. I have a social position within my community that is comfortable and oftentimes even respected.

So from some points of view, I may not be the best person to engage the current discussion about race, racism, and higher education. On the other hand, there are a lot of people like me running universities and colleges across the country. So if we don't engage, then solutions will be difficult to find. So I dip my foot in these waters tentatively, with humility and understanding that mine is a particular perspective.

A number of articles have been written of late that are well worth reading. There is Nicholas Kristof's excellent piece in today's NYT. There is a very good article in the Atlantic in defense of civility and against censorship. There is this blog post about racism written compellingly from a young black man's perspective.

In the midst of all of these conversations about clashing free speech and racism concerns, I appreciate these perspectives. In particular I appreciate the voice of the young blogger trying to explain what racism really is to those who never experience it. It is powerfully put and I believe sincere. He isn't attacking anyone in particular, but a broader problem in general. This is the kind of thing that can contribute to a conversation.

In order to actually push that conversation forward, however, it is not enough to hear from the victims of racism about the pain it causes. We need to know more - not about those who suffer from these indignities and injustices, but about those who perpetrate them.

Not all whites (or members of any group, for that matter) are racists. But some are. How do we address those who engage in these behaviors? How do we identify them, engage with them, and ultimately persuade them to change? That, it seems to me, is the real challenge. Beyond the protests and the screaming and the back-and-forth internet trolling, this is what real leadership (from wherever it emerges) needs to do.

Earlier today I likened the ongoing protests (some of which are occurring on my campus today, in solidarity with others) to a conflict. As a conflict scholar, the steps towards resolution are clear:

- Identify the essentials of the conflict. Who are the players? What are their interests, and what are they fighting about? What are the rules of the surrounding environment that shape how the conflict is conducted?

- Decide on the desired end goal. If the conflict were over, what would you want that to look like? What resolution do you seek, and what does that resolution look like for ALL of the actors involved?

- Evaluate and choose a strategy for achieving that goal. Can I get there through unilateral action, or do I need the cooperation of those with different views? Can I engineer a solution that meets my needs regardless of what the other side wants, or do I have to persuade others to join with me in a mutually-agreed settlement?

I don't think we've yet had much clear thinking about any of these things. Conflicts often arise between aggrieved students and university administrators or faculty, which is an example of the lamppost fallacy: tackling what you can see, rather than going where the problem really is. The fundamental conflict is between members of minority groups (blacks, latinos, transgender, etc.) and members of the majority group who want to discriminate against and oppress them. If that is the core of the conflict, there is no unilateral solution - neither group can wipe the other out, both must continue to live in the same society together. The question is, how?

I don't have any good answers. I don't know how you identify who the racists are, much less how you draw them into a political process designed to address their real interests and fashion a mutually acceptable solution. All I know is that until we do so, we are likely to be stuck in the ugly stalemate of today - sometimes quieter, sometimes louder, but with very little progress towards a better future.