Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Is There Such a Thing as Provocation?

Provocation used to be recognized in American courts. The degree to which it still is, I don't know. But presumably, once upon a time, if you got arrested for punching a guy in the nose and told the judge, "Yes, Your Honor, I punched him in the nose, but only because he wouldn't quit calling my wife a whore," there was a good chance you'd get off with a lighter sentence or none at all, because the court would recognize that you had been sufficiently provoked. It's not to say that punching people in the nose isn't wrong; just that it's too much to expect you to be a saint when someone else is working really hard at getting themselves punched. It was a recognition of two facts: 1) that humans have their limits, and 2) that sometimes victims contribute to the mental state of their attacker. Sometimes they literally ask for it. By treating provocation as a mitigating circumstance, courts were recognizing the concept of shared culpability.

We hold police officers to a higher standard of self-restraint when it comes to provocation. This is why most police academies still use a boot camp format for creating a stressful environment for cadets. The schools not only want officers to be able to work under pressure, they want them to demonstrate that they have a thick skin. It's expected that nobody wants to go to jail, and so it's not unusual for people who are being taken to jail to hurl insults and abuses at the people who are taking them. This much is expected, and a police department needs people who can handle it.

How does someone handle something like that, though, day after day? One way is that the officers set themselves above it. They take an attitude of condescension toward the person who is behaving badly. They fix it in their minds that the person hurling insults somehow can't help himself, because he's morally or mentally inferior in some respect. It's treated almost like a handicap. Just as you wouldn't lose your temper with an incontinent person for wetting himself, you don't lose your temper with criminals for acting like criminals. It's all they're capable of.

If you get into this mindset, it can make the job workable. Of course, after a few years of spending all day responding to calls of criminal behavior, it can be challenging not to see the whole of society as belonging in that mental category of human rubbish, because you're getting a skewed perspective. You have to fight back the urge to suspect the worst of everyone.

But what do you do when they don't let you? That is, what if you're trying to brighten the line in your mind that separates criminals from everybody else, so that you can still retain somewhat of a positive view of humanity in general, but the rest of humanity doesn't cooperate? What if, every time you try to be polite, friendly, and helpful to people you weren't called to arrest, they rebuff you and repay your kindness with venom? How much of that could you take? How long would you endure that before reaching the conclusion that the general public does deserve to be lumped in with the criminal element?

That's not something they teach in police academies, and it doesn't get enough attention in most police departments. Religion could play a useful role here, but being as there's a wall of separation (or supposed to be) and the fact that departments may be composed of officers from a diversity of faiths, the role religion can actually play is necessarily restricted. Psychological counseling isn't really an option, either, as simply reaching out to a mental health care provider stigmatizes an officer as being unfit for duty.

So we call these guys to come clean up society's messes, and then we dump more garbage on them for doing it, and the only support system we allow them is each other, or--off-duty--their families and churches. If divorce rates and domestic abuse rates among cops are any indicator, this is too much to expect of families. And then we're put off by the fact that the police have an "us vs. them" attitude toward the public when we, the public, created it.

Suppose you were a fire fighter, and every time you showed up to respond to a medical emergency, everybody there whipped out their cell phones hoping to get video evidence of you stealing something, despite the fact that you had never stolen anything, ever. How long would it take for that to get old? Imagine people clutched their purses and patted their wallets every time they saw a firefighter. Imagine pundits going on for years at a time and even building whole careers around pounding the message that firefighters don't respect people's property. "When the only tool you've got is an axe, every problem looks like firewood." Suppose that every time a fire broke out, there was a near certainty that the fire department was going to be sued for breaking doors and causing water damage to walls and furniture. Every other day, the news would have a story about the "reckless disregard" firefighters had for people's stuff, and they'd run stories with carefully constructed half-truths about how firefighters in other countries put out fires using waterless methods. If more fires happened in a minority neighborhood, necessitating more responses from the fire department, journalists would hold up those statistics as proof that firefighting is an inherently racist occupation.

If you felt you were continually under assault by everyone outside your fire department, just for doing your job, how long would it be before you eventually told all those jerks to put out their own fires and drive themselves to the hospital?

It's in this light that I'd like you to watch this video. In South Gate, a city in Los Angeles County, California, some plainclothes police officers in tactical gear were doing something--arresting someone, serving a warrant, we don't really know. And for some reason, there were at least two women in the neighborhood--one across the street and another maybe ten feet from them--who felt that the mere presence of these officers represented an impropriety worthy of documenting. The officers weren't apparently doing anything to either of these women, just talking among themselves. But one of the women nonetheless got very close to them, playing sidewalk news anchor with her cell phone. It's not clear from this video whether they asked her to stop or asked her to leave, but it's also not clear what business she had being there doing what she was doing.

At that point, we see one of the officers chase the woman, grab her phone, and destroy it. Make no mistake. What he did was wrong--as wrong as punching someone in the nose for repeatedly calling your wife a whore--and he should face appropriate disciplinary action accordingly. If the implication is that the recording is for the purpose of documenting criminal evidence, then the implied accusation in recording the officers' conversation is that the officers are all criminals and that their mere presence is a criminal act. How long should the people who are there to stop crime reasonably be expected to put up with that foolishness? It doesn't justify one of them assaulting a woman and destroying her property, but there's also only so much sympathy one can have for somebody who goes out of their way to kick a rattlesnake.

At some point, when adults get serious about solving a behavioral problem--whether of an animal, a child, subordinates, a class of people, whatever--they realize that you can't just punish everyone into compliance. They figure out that the people who are acting in an undesirable way are doing so as a response to certain conditions, and if you want to change the behavior, you have to change the conditions. Do you think police in this country are out of control, brutal, and corrupt? If so, are you out of control, brutal, and corrupt? If not, what's the difference? Don't just say, "they're rotten people." That's too easy. It solves nothing. They're human beings displaying human responses to a given set of conditions the best way they know how. So what conditions are they being subjected to that caused them to be more brutal, out-of-control, and corrupt than you, and what can we do to either eliminate those conditions, or to better equip the officers to deal with those conditions in a way we find acceptable? That's a national discussion that needs to happen. In the mean time, we're not helping anything by needling these guys for existing, and then crying about it when they lash out in response. It's time we did more than just demand better. It's time we created better, and that starts with recognizing our own role in creating this situation.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Turning Privilege Into Oppression

Let's play a game. Think of some privilege you have, like...

"I have electrical service in my home 24/7."

That's pretty awesome! Do you know how many people DON'T have that kind of luxury? And did you really do anything to deserve it? You may have earned the money to pay your electric bill, but it's unlikely that you're personally and solely responsible for the existence of the power plant and the electrical grid in your city. If you're like most people who have electricity, you lucked out on those things. Now, take that privilege, and find a way to turn it into a complaint.

"I can't get ahead because I'm burdened with high electrical costs! Every time I try to see the sunset, all I see are wires. I worry constantly that my house will burn down or that I'll get shocked. I'm afraid to turn on the light when I take a shower. I fear that the wiring in my house puts me at special risk during a thunderstorm. I worry that all that electromagnetism coursing through the walls may be giving me cancer while I sleep. The power company conspires with manufacturers to make products that make me increasingly addicted to electricity usage. I don't want mountaintop removal or wars in the Middle East, but I don't know how I'd get by without an unlimited supply of electricity, so I keep voting for horrible people and feeling guilty about it. It's all a devious conspiracy to keep me trapped in a job I don't want working to pay for things I wish I could live without."

Wow, what a burden! Now, if you can couple that with neoteny, you...

What's neoteny? Neoteny is the retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood. It's a biological term. In humans, females are strongly neotenous. For example, the size, shape, and sound of a twelve-year-old child of either sex are much closer to the size, shape, and sound of a grown woman than to those of a grown man. Men appear more different from children than women do. Socially, this has worked to women's advantage, because all humans--men and women alike--have evolved to nurture children and to place importance on protecting them and providing for them. So when a child--or a woman--cries, you're going to feel more biologically compelled to care than if you see a man crying. The same characteristic that would make you want to avoid a war movie where all the casualties are cute, little kid is the same characteristic that makes you listen and care when a woman talks about someone hurting her feelings.

So anyway, if you happen to possess this trait that makes everybody biologically hardwired to care about your well-being, and then you manage to re-state everything good in your life as a terrible burden, you've just learned the basics of how to be a Feminist.

Here's an example from the editors at Everday Feminism. The link goes to a cartoon called "How Society Polices Women's Clothing," that shows us just how tough it is to be an affluent, Western woman. There's just no way she can please everyone! The cartoon shows seventeen different ways a woman can dress, and how, in all but the last instance, other people are going to have opinions about it. Opinions! Uncharitable ones, even. Go on, go read the cartoon and let it soak in just how badly America treats women over something as simple as getting dressed to step outside. Terrible, isn't it?

Now go back and look at the whole cartoon again, only this time, imagine that each of the characters you see there are men, and imagine how the captions might differ. Go on and do it. I'll wait. Frame by frame, no advancing to the next one until you've wrapped your head around the idea that each one is male and expects to be regarded as such. Give them guys' names if it helps. I'll start you off: The dude with the long hair and the Daisy Dukes is Kevin. The one in the long skirt is Doug. The one in the suit and a bunch of makeup is Marcos. The one next to him in the pink dress is Frank.

I suspect the criticisms these guys would face might embody something a little harsher than just, "You should wear clothes that do more to flatter your shape." They'd be more likely to contain the word "faggot" and threats of serious bodily harm. which all those compassionate feminists fighting for equal rights for all humans will just shrug and say, "If he doesn't want to get his ass kicked, he shouldn't dress that way. It's not our fault he chose to throw away his male privilege." Because it's privilege when a man is all but assigned a daily uniform and threatened with physical violence for deviating from it, but it's oppression when a woman has multiple options for every occasion and her biggest problem is that people will notice her and feel moved to say something they think is helpful.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Biggest Danger of Police Work Is Not What You Think

I may edit this later to be a proper, stand-alone article, but for now, I'm just going to paste it and give you some background. I used to be a cop, and my little brother and his wife still are. My brother's Facebook posts are pretty much limited to pictures of American flags and memes celebrating the heroism of police and military personnel. It's the kind of starry-eyed, patriotic stuff I might have posted when I was a ten-year-old Cub Scout if we'd had Facebook back then. On one of these recent posts--a video monologue by a young woman gushing about how wonderful police were and attacking anyone who felt less intensely about it than she did--one commenter dared to offer that, while police work was indeed both dangerous and noble, it wasn't the most dangerous job in the world, statistically speaking. Specifically, he cited construction work as being more dangerous. Predictably, there was a vicious dogpile as law enforcement officers and those who love them tore the man to shreds for having the temerity to share such an offensive fact. The poor guy scrambled to clarify that he had no ill will towards the police, but it wasn't enough. They got nasty, so he got nasty back, and it completely fell apart. At that point, I posted this:

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics, Again

Reading a few articles over on, I'm overwhelmed by the logical fallacies and failures of reasoning that the readers are supposed to just swallow without question. Permit me to "mansplain" one of the more problematic ones.

Let's say we have ten targets, and we line them up left to right along a wall. Standing just a few feet away, I take a bow and arrow, aim at the target furthest to the right, shoot, and hit that one target. Ten percent of the targets on that wall have now been hit by an arrow.

This does NOT mean, however, that, "If you're a target on that wall, you have a ten percent chance of being hit by an arrow." It means that the one I aimed at had a very likely chance of getting hit (the exact percentage depends on such variables as my marksmanship and the quality of the archery equipment), while the ones I wasn't aiming at were very unlikely to get hit at all. The chances that my arrow would have left the bow, taken a sharp left turn, zoomed to the target furthest to the left, taken a sharp right turn, and then planted itself in that far-left target are something close to zero percent.

And yet that's exactly the sort of assertion being made when  they say that a person of color has a 44%-50% chance of going to prison or that a woman has a one-in-three chance of being raped. It presumes that there is a sole, relevant variable--in these examples, being a person of color and being a woman, respectively. For that to be true, we have to assume that because President Obama is a person of color, he has the same chance of going to prison as does a black gang member who sells crack in front of a police station, or that an old woman alone on a sailboat in the middle of the ocean is as likely to be raped as is a teenage girl in sub-Saharan Africa who's been kidnapped by enemy soldiers. That kind of claim doesn't pass the most basic of credibility tests.