Friday, September 12, 2014

Why the Debate Over Guns Doesn't Make Me Angry - It Makes Me Sad

I've written plenty of blog posts about gun control over the last couple of years, including a number on the relationship (a complicated one) between guns and self-defense, and the toxic nature of the politics that surrounds the issue. Yesterday I saw yet another Facebook meme that pushed my thinking in a new direction:


It would be easy to lampoon this piece for its obvious logical fallacy. I cannot prove a point by finding a single instance of somebody who does something differently. Looking around the world, there is no obvious correlation between the number of guns and the safety of citizens. Australia banned many weapons a number of years ago, and remains (so I understand) a pretty nice place to live. The UK is so devoid of guns that half the time the cops don't even have them, but also seems to remain a civilized place. Somalia and Afghanistan are awash in guns, and I wouldn't want to live in either. Switzerland has military weapons in nearly every household (albeit under lock and key) and remains one of the safest places on earth.

We can go round and round with such examples; all we prove is that the correlation between "gun control" (however defined) and individual safety is weak if not non-existent.

But that's not what really caught my eye here - the internet is full of memes that don't make any logical sense. What strikes me here is the almost fierce joy with which the facts above are presented. The possession of half a billion guns is offered as something to be celebrated, a source of rejoicing. And that bothers me deeply.

In our argument about gun regulations and the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, we have lost sight of the main point: guns themselves. With a few exceptions, small in number overall (hunting rifles, shotguns), guns are devices designed and built for a single purpose: to injure and kill other human beings. They are, in fact, by far the most effective tools we have ever devised for that purpose.  They are small, portable, cheap, ubiquitously available, and lack the collateral damage problems of high explosives and nuclear devices. From a strictly technological and economic perspective, they are a marvel of engineering.

And that should bother anyone, at least a little bit. It is a sad thing - if not a tragedy - that one of the greatest achievements of the human species is our ability to devise such an efficient and widespread means of killing each other. And that killing - which takes place at extraordinary rates all over the world - is very nearly always senseless and unnecessary.

People of all political stripes and persuasions talk about leadership and the need for a vision. Ronald Reagan was famous for his "morning in America" speech; Bill Clinton had his "bridge to the 21st century". We know from almost all realms of human endeavor, from politics to business to culture, that people respond best to a positive, uplifting vision of the present and the future.

So what kind of vision is it that celebrates the possession of half a billion devices for killing other people? Is this what the NRA, or the "Right Wing" (the meme above was posted by a group called "Right Wing News"), wants to trumpet as the highest ideal of humanity? Is this what the "city on a hill" looks like - an armed camp?

In this regard, some of the comments posted in response to the meme above are nearly as instructive. Here are a few examples:

    "All you gun haters move to Iraq an try living there without being a target"

    "OK Pilgrim I think it's time to play COWBOYS & MUSLIMS" (accompanied by a photo of John Wayne carrying a rifle in one of his westerns)

    "First they take your guns, then they take your freedoms, then they take your life. Fools, stay armed and buy more guns."

    "America was built on God, guns and guts ... leave it that way or leave!!"

For me, this is why I cannot understand or find much sympathy for the hard-core 2nd Amendment tribe. I can understand logical arguments about guns as a necessary evil for defense (civilian or otherwise) in a dangerous world. And to some degree I can understand the pleasure of firing guns in sport (though recent events have shown that this can be a deadly exercise). But to celebrate the possession of large numbers of guns as good in and of itself strikes me as not so much politically problematic as both tragic and morally misguided - even fundamentally uncivilized. I wonder what vision of God allows such a close relationship between the divine and killing machines.

This, I think, may be why we have such a hard time having conversations about guns. It isn't because we disagree about facts, or about the analysis of those facts, or about policies, or even about the Constitution. It's because we have vastly divergent views about what human beings should aspire to, what the ideals of "civilization" should be, and what "good" looks like. The really difficult differences are not so much between Americans and foreigners (ISIS or otherwise) as they are among ourselves and within our own communities.

For myself, I value peace and harmony. I believe that the highest ideal of humanity is working together for the good of all - not because we are forced to by a central power, but out of love and mutual respect for one another. I recognize that many of the problems of the world are tragic obstacles to this goal, and that those problems call forth solutions that are less than ideal. But I also believe that nearly all of those problems can be overcome among people who hold to a similar ideal of peace and harmony. Whatever our other differences, if that is our common goal we will find common ground and the means to pursue it together.

If, on the other hand, your highest value is the possession of tools to kill other human beings than I am afraid we simply have nothing to say to each other. And I find that a very sad thing.

Friday, September 5, 2014

"Blood on our Hands": Moral Responsibility and Modern Life


It has become characteristic of a certain kind of political protest to demand that some institution - the US government, a university, your local town, a company - take extraordinary steps to disconnect, divest, or otherwise disassociate itself from a political situation or conflict. Institutions that fail to take such steps are, in the eyes of the protestors, "morally responsible" for whatever atrocities or horrific crimes are being committed elsewhere. And since the crimes in question often involve a lot of bloodshed, this tends to lead to some pretty hyperbolic protest language.

A student at Ohio University treated her university, and the world, to an especially silly version of such a protest this week. You can read a full news account of the incident here. The original video has unfortunately been taken down, but you can watch the debate it set off on the OU campus here.

It is worth noting that the student body president did recant and apologize for her silliness and appears to have recognized the error of her ways. But I would guess that this is an argument that will linger for a while on the OU campus.

While dramatic (turning the Ice Bucket Challenge into a bucket of blood will certainly draw attention), the argument that this student made is a familiar one. It's worth noting her statements, captured in transcript from the video:
In the video, posted on Vimeo, Marzec states, "I'm sending a message of student concern of the genocide in Gaza and the occupation of Palestine by the Israeli state. I'm urging you, and OU, to divest and cut all ties with academic and other Israeli businesses and institutions," she said during in video. "This bucket of blood symbolizes the thousands of displaced and murdered Palestinians atrocities which OU is directly complacent in your cultural and economic support of the Israeli state."
Now, I assume that she meant "complicit" rather than "complacent", but you get the drift. Because OU's investment portfolio and international activities include ties to Israel in some fashion, the university itself has "blood on its hands" for all of those innocent Palestinian deaths.

There is a practical silliness to this, of course: OU could do as this student asked tomorrow, divest itself of every investment connected to Israeli companies, cut all ties of cooperation with Israeli universities, and not a single thing would change in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, if every last university in the US did this, it still wouldn't change a thing. This seems like the opposite of the Peter Parker Principle - if great power brings great responsibility, shouldn't no power absolve one from responsibility?

But the real reason for such protests isn't the practical impact of the actions demanded (though protesters often delude themselves into thinking that they will in some fashion change the world). What these folks are primarily after is the self-righteous rush of feeling that, whatever evil happens in the world, their hands are clean.

This is, of course, an absurdity in the modern world, especially if your standard for "bloody hands" is "any financial connection to the perpetrators". Do you pay taxes to the US government? Do you participate in the international economy? The reality of modern trade and global production is that nearly any economic activity is likely tied, in some fashion, to some questionable behavior that you probably wouldn't like to be associated with.

It is the merging of these impossibly high moral standards with the obvious (if unintended) hypocrisy of those who promote them that makes the whole thing fall apart. What starts as impassioned moral protest degenerates quickly into cheap theater, screaming, and useless diatribe that accomplishes nothing.

If you are truly concerned about the great moral issues of the day, whether they are in Missouri or Israel, the appropriate response is much harder. Rather than trying (fruitlessly) to disassociate ourselves and our institutions from whatever side of a conflict we don't like, what we need to do is engage with the issues and the people involved. Talk to all sides and hear their stories. Listen to their humanity, their dreams, their aspirations. Understand their weaknesses and failings - and how little you may be able to change them.

You cannot end an intractable conflict by dumping blood on your head. But you may be able, in a small way, to heal some of the damage that conflict causes, even if it's far away from the bombing and the killing. And in the process, you will discover something far more valuable than angry self-righteousness. If you're lucky, you may just discover the peace that comes with connecting with another human being.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Why Are We Excommunicating Each Other?

I have written before on the corrosive effects of tribal identities in American politics. Far too many folks have adopted exclusive identities that increasingly shut everyone else out and label them enemies (often in dehumanizing and even violent terms). A couple of recent examples of such posts are here and here; you can also search this blog for the label "tribalism".

My hunch that this is an accelerating phenomenon was reinforced this morning by not one, but two stories in Inside Higher Ed:
Southern Utah Removes Senator's Name From Building
Public School District Drops Ties to Gordon College
The first case involves classic party labels. Utah is a pretty conservative state, dominated by Republicans. Apparently the fact that the one Southern Utah University alumnus to rise to the prominent position of Speaker of the House was a Democrat was too much for these folks, demonstrating that party loyalties outweigh alumni loyalties. The University claims that that's not why Harry Reid's name was taken off the side of a building, but I'll bet those local Republicans will crow about their "victory" in getting a hated Democrat's name removed from the public square.

The second case comes from the other side of the aisle, and appeals to the same tribes without the party labels. The president of Gordon College, an avowedly Christian liberal arts school in the Boston area, had signed a letter asking for an exemption from a new federal Executive Order on hiring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Like many conservative Christian organizations, Gordon College argued that it should be exempt from the law on the grounds of religious liberty. In response, a local school district which had partnered with Gordon for years ended their relationship - presumably because the school district disagrees with the college's position on employment discrimination and sexual orientation. Like the Utah case, no doubt there is plenty of self-righteous congratulatory feeling going around.

Both cases illustrate a fundamental tribal behavior: separate yourself from The Other as much as is humanly possible. Have nothing to do with them. Do not allow their names to adorn your buildings. Do not allow your students to mix with theirs. No cooperation, no compromise, and no recognition of shared interests. They are to be excommunicated, cast out, and considered Unclean.

Humans, of course, have been doing this sort of thing for as long as there has been human behavior. But there had been a general sense that, all other things being equal, the less of it we engage in the better we are. This drive to unite rather than divide is one of the founding principles and aspirations of American politics. It used to be that E pluribus unum was widely understood. Today it seems to be more often translated, "I'm right and you're wrong, so go to Hell."

These small acts of excommunication have very little practical effect. Southern Utah will raise money to build more buildings (with or without Reid's name), and I'm sure the school district in Lynn will find a source of student helpers. These are symbolic gestures - and that is why they are so important.

Are we as a people really so consumed with our tribal self-righteousness that we need to fight over whose name goes on a building? Can Harry Reid's life and contribution be reduced to a single label, overriding everything else he may have ever done? Are the students of Gordon College all the same because their institution's president signed a statement, and does that statement overshadow the good they might be able to do in a classroom?

In the end, of course, these symbolic gestures aren't really about their intended targets, whether they be House Speakers or college students. They're about the egos and identities of the self-righteous who want to stand on the street corner and trumpet their virtue to the world - or at least, to the members of their own tribe. They would rather beat their chests and shout their own praises than engage in real conversation with someone they might disagree with.

The real danger of such conversations, of course, is not that the participants will be made Unclean. It is that they might discover they have more in common with their "enemies" than they thought, and be forced to regard them as valuable human beings rather than as foils and talking points. I, for one, would rather live in a society of people than a Balkanized collection of warring factions shouting at one another.


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Are Racism and False Accusations of Racism Equal Problems?

I was struck by a cartoon circulated on the internets today:


This appears to be a classic case of "argument" by false equivalence. Both statements are true, in a sloppy linguistic sort of way. Racism does suck, and being falsely accused of it sucks too.

But surely these things aren't the same? Racism runs the gamut from brief social encounters to deadly violence. But for those who experience it, it is a constant and life-altering force. Read, for example, this piece written for CNN by an educated black professional living near (but not in) Ferguson, MO. Even minor forms of racism, repeated day after day after day, can ruin a life.

On the other hand, if I (being white) am falsely accused of racism, is that going to ruin my life? Will it happen to me every day? Will it make me wonder whether my children will come home safe at night? Am I likely to be killed because of a false accusation of racism? In all likelihood, a false accusation of racism in my life would lead to an uncomfortable day or two until I have a chance to explain myself and reconcile with my accusers. And even if I am unsuccessful in that, I will likely leave the incident behind and go on with my life largely unchanged.

So why engage in this kind of false equivalence? I can speculate but I really don't know. I suspect that, at root, this is a classic example of dog whistle politics. It's not really a message intended for me, because I'm not in the tribe this is speaking to. And like all tribal messages, this one isn't concerned with logic or argument - it's about identity, in this case an exclusionary identity more interested in circling the wagons than in engaging with people outside their own boundaries. It's the kind of speech that divides rather than unites.

And that sucks.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Why is Police Use of Force Different from Other Violence?

Another year, another month, another week, another killing of an unarmed young man in America. Other bloggers (Will Moore in particular) have been much more diligent about covering excessive use of force by police than I have. But the incident this week in Ferguson, Missouri has ignited a national conversation, at least briefly.

That conversation has gone in a number of directions, all of them important and meaningful. There is, of course, the race relations problem - Ferguson is an overwhelmingly black town with a nearly all-white police force, and many black residents have indicated that they have faced harassment from their "own" cops of years. A generation after the Rodney King riots, it is a national tragedy that this problem remains with us.

Then there are the twin problems of excessive force and over-militarization within the police. Scads of photos from Ferguson showing police with assault rifles, helmets, body armor, and large armored vehicles have been plastered across the internet. Some sites have stacked those photos side by side with photos of the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan. The visual similarities are striking, making Ferguson look to the world like a war zone. "Is this what we want our police to look like?" is an appropriate and urgent question. "Shock and awe" was designed as a means of warfare for distant lands, not a means of keeping the peace in American suburbs. Clearly there's something badly out of kilter here.

What I haven't seen much about yet - probably because we're waiting for facts to emerge from an impartial investigation - is an understanding of the actual shooting death of Michael Brown. The few facts there are seem to be undisputed:

- Brown was unarmed at the time of his killing.
- Brown was walking down the street, during the day, when he walked by a police car.
- Brown was killed by multiple gunshot wounds, including one or more to the head.

As a student of interpersonal violence and self-defense, I struggle to imagine ANY scenario under which this is OK for the police officer involved. This seems like a gross overreaction to almost any conceivable "threat" this young man might have posed.

This is where I am left baffled. Every year there are numerous incidents in which police shoot and kill unarmed people and are determined, by police inquiry, to have operated within "proper police procedures". In many of these cases, the victim dies of a great many gunshot wounds, often fired at some range. Police will say that they were operating within their standard procedures - which suggests that the rules and procedures themselves are the problem.

I'm willing to accept that police, because they put themselves in harm's way to protect the community, may be given some latitude that the rest of us don't have. But how much? And shouldn't they be accountable to the public, both for what those rules are and for how they are used?

I can only imagine that, whatever the nature of the opening confrontation between Brown and the police, there were several ways to deal with it that didn't involve the drawing of a firearm. Why are THOSE not "common police procedure"? Introducing a deadly weapon, as every self-defense instructor I know will tell you, should be the absolute last resort. Yet some police, like Ted Nugent and Wayne LaPierre, seem to think that guns in the hands of "good guys" can solve all problems. Where is the NRA now?

Ultimately, I don't really have the right words about this tragedy. An encounter that started out as, at worst, a modest verbal conflict ended in someone brutally killed. That is wrong, wrong, wrong, no matter what kind of bureaucratic crap you slap on top of it in the name of "professional policing". Clearly, at least in some places, our police forces have gotten a badly skewed notion of what force is supposed to be for. Perhaps it's time that we as a society took that decision back, both from "professional police" who are too enamored of their military toys and from gun-culture folks who think the solution to everything is to threaten to shoot it.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Toxic Identities: The Corrosive Effects of Tribal Identities and Enemy Thinking

Imagine a land in which two groups exist side by side. They don't mix much and increasingly segregate themselves and live among their own kind. Each has a narrative about the evil of the other group, how the other is out to destroy everything worth fighting for, and how there can be no real co-existence. They may inhabit the same space, but they are worlds apart.

Sound familiar? This could describe the current conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Or between eastern and western Ukrainians. Or Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq.

But it's also here in the United States.

True, we don't have people shooting each other in the streets. And the majority of Americans don't really think this way. But there are some among us who do - members of our own society who have drawn their own identities in so extreme a fashion that their rhetoric looks a lot like Hamas, or the rebels in Donetsk, or the leaders of the Islamic State.

Who are these Americans? They exist on various ends of the ideological spectrum. But today the loudest, most vocal, and most numerous are hijacking the title of "Conservative". And they are becoming increasingly shrill.

To be clear, the majority of Americans who identify themselves as conservatives don't think this way. But there is a minority - a splinter group, if you will - who are working hard to hijack the label. And like all revolutionaries, they will turn on their own kind as readily as on their ideological enemies.

This is an identity battle fought to a large degree in social media, the great public conversation of our day. Here are a couple of recently-circulated examples:



The message here isn't subtle. For these to make any sense at all, you have to believe that there are "Conservatives" and "Liberals" in the same way that there are "Israelis" and "Palestinians", or "Sunnis" and "Shiites" - that is, that these are essentially fixed groups with nothing in common. Both memes are broadly and vaguely disparaging, the latter in the kind of screaming-tantrum-at-the-top-of-your-lungs sort of way. Really, I'm surprised there isn't a Hitler reference in there somewhere.

If you happen to identify as a Conservative who thinks along these lines, and you've read this far, your reaction might be, "Hey, Liberals do this too! Why aren't you picking on them, you commie?" Recognize that "the other guy does it too" is the defense of the three year old who knows he's wrong. Grow up.

I don't much care about whether people hold conservative or liberal political ideas. I have found many times that when people engage in real dialogue, they often find that they have far more in common than otherwise. And I know many folks of various stripes (but of late, especially conservatives) who have abandoned politics because of precisely this kind of rhetoric.

We are, or ought to be, better than this. We are not Palestine, Ukraine, or Iraq. One of the great contributions of the United States to the world in the last 200 years is the ongoing experiment, however fitful and imperfect, in creating a national identity out of so many different kinds of people. The folks who spread the memes above apparently want to undo all of that, and return to some kind of "purer" politics where only they and their ilk are in charge. When they see "E Pluribus Unum" perhaps they think it means "I'm right, you're wrong".

Whether you engage in this kind of rhetoric in the name of Conservatism or Communism is immaterial. It is the one kind of politics that is fundamentally un-American.

So if you're passing this kind of nonsense unchallenged (or even approvingly) on social media, please stop. You are neither better nor worse than your fellow Americans. And "they" are not the Enemy. Walt Kelly was right - we have met the enemy, and He is Us.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Myth of Administrative Capability and "Hard Choices"

I ran across this story in today's higher education press, which caught my eye:
Female provost is accused of repeatedly touching her male colleagues
I was initially intrigued since this turns the usual sexual-harassment dynamic on its head. We are apparently progressive enough now that it's just as OK for women to harass men as it is for men to harass women (which is to say, not).

Actually, that turns out to be the least interesting part of the story. Slightly more interesting is that this particular administrator, hired to be provost at Montana State University-Northern, had left her previous position under a cloud after stirring up trouble there. That, too, is not much of a surprise although it's a sad story. Senior-level search processes seem incapable of figuring out that the reason why a given candidate is on the market may also be a reason why you don't want to hire them. I once worked for a provost hired after having reportedly been ousted from a previous position (and under circumstances that were, at the least, obviously suspicious). It didn't go well.

So I could turn this into an appeal for universities to do their darned homework on senior candidates and stop hiring other people's problems. But by itself that, too, would be old news.

What really interested me in the story linked above was not that MSU-Northern had hired a bad apple, which they probably shouldn't have. It's that both the provost's lawyer and (more importantly) the university's senior administration defended their hiring decision on the grounds that really good administrators often piss people off. Here are a couple of good quotes from the article:
Kevin McRae, a spokesman for the Montana State University system, said it’s not unusual to hire administrators who have “distinguished themselves with tough decision-making in the past."
“Through the advent of Google, just about any time a recruitment is done, people can come to us with controversies,” McRae said.
Templeton’s lawyer said provosts make hard choices and people naturally don’t like someone who comes in and makes hard decisions.
I've heard this "tough decision-maker" defense before. It is, of course, patent nonsense: there is no necessary correlation between having to make sometimes difficult trade-off decisions and alienating people. What matters is how the decisions are made and what the relationship is between those making those decisions and those being affected by them. Genuinely good administrators do this all the time - they make tough calls in an inclusive and transparent way, and although people sometimes don't like the outcome they don't turn on the administrator who led the process.

I call this the "hard-ass school of administration". It's a theory propounded by people who don't actually have any political or diplomatic skills, or any desire to share control with others, as an excuse for bad behavior. Or, as in this case, it's often brought up to justify past bad decisions, a sort of CYA exercise. The statement that since "the advent of Google" everyone is dogged by controversy is ridiculous on its face.

Tragedies occur when universities only find out about these power-hungry tendencies after the hire is made. If you're on a campus doing a senior administrative search, demand transparency and accountability. Research the candidates thoroughly. Be fair about it - I have colleagues whose past is deemed "controversial" even though a thorough examination shows they did nothing wrong. Don't jump to conclusions either way - research, and research, and research, until you get as close to the truth as you can. And don't take the "tough decision-maker" argument at face value.

In other words, we should apply the same diligence to our administrative search processes that we do to our academic careers. Shame that there are universities that can't seem to make that connection.