Monday, 18 June 2018

Rule of Law, Law and Order

     In 1984, the Ministry of Truth runs a project to reform language by introducing Newspeak, with fewer and fewer words so as to make it impossible to express complex or nuanced political ideas. But this isn't the only way to take away concepts. Another trick is to start misusing the word for one concept to refer to a different one, so that people will no longer know the older meaning.

     I don't know if it's a deliberate effort, because it's a fairly natural sort of mistake to make, but I see this happening with the phrase "rule of law". A few months ago, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence praised former sheriff Joe Arpaio as "a champion of [...] the rule of law". That only barely makes sense if Pence is using "rule of law" as a synonym for "law and order", because Arpaio could plausibly be described as a harsh disciplinarian with little tolerance for lawbreaking from certain segments of the population.
     But "law and order" and "rule of law" are absolutely not the same thing. "Law and order" is what you have when the people obey the law, and sometimes that may require government authorities to enforce the law. "Rule of law" is when those government authorities themselves obey the law.
     The two ideas are complementary, and having one makes it easier to have the other, but they are not at all the same. You can have a certain amount of law and order (or at least, order) without rule of law; we are all familiar with the archetype of the loose cannon cop who breaks the rules in order to catch the bad guy. But without rule of law, the best you can hope for is a benevolent dictatorship, and pray that the rule-breaking cops are acting for the right reasons.
     And you can have rule of law without (much) law and order, if you have a small government staffed by a few law-abiding people with limited resources trying to manage an uncooperative or indifferent populace. Ideally, of course, you'll have both, and the two do in fact reinforce one another.

     Joe Arpaio was an excellent example of law-and-order without rule-of-law. He billed himself as "America's Toughest Sheriff", and employed all sorts of extreme measures against illegal immigration in particular, with a particular emphasis on people who looked Mexican. In fact, a court granted an injunction against him and his department, ordering them to stop engaging in racial profiling. A rule-of-law sheriff would have obeyed a court order, but Arpaio kept right on at it, and was eventually charged and convicted with criminal contempt for defying that injunction (and then pardoned by the President before even being sentenced.)
     So it's troubling to me that Pence would have chosen to call this man a champion of the rule of law. Sure, call him a champion of law and order if you want, and I may disagree but it's at least a coherent thought. But calling him a champion of the rule of law is not just literally false, but subversive to the concept itself. Rule of law is not the same as law and order, and when you use the phrase that way, you weaken our ability to talk about actual rule of law, and hence, to demand it.

     Is this a deliberate effort, or just lexical laziness? I don't know, and I'm not sure it matters, but we should resist it in any event. Rule of law means that our government obeys the law, and we should not allow anyone, least of all members of that government, to tell us it means us obeying them.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

On Political Correctness and Freedom of Speech

     There is a widespread (mis)perception that Political Correctness will be the death of Free Speech, which I'm not going to attempt to refute directly here. Rather, what I want to do in this post is to offer something of an explanation for why there is this perception, and how reasonable and well-intentioned people can in good faith assert it. There's a process involved here that I need to break down into its components to explain, so please bear with me.

     First, and this may seem trivial but it's quite important, we tend to think that when other people disagree with us, they're wrong and we're right. That's perfectly all right and logically necessary, but the problem is that we often have a very hard time considering the alternative (that they're right and we're wrong) even as an abstract possibility. It's often much easier to imagine that our opponent is dishonest or evil or stupid than it is to acknowledge that we might just be mistaken.
     This is so for several reasons, but a subtly important one is this: simple soundbite explanations are almost always much easier to absorb and repeat than complex, nuanced explanations. Identifying the cognitive error we or our opponent may have made in good faith in formulating an opinion takes a lot more effort than simply concluding that they're dishonest or evil or stupid.

     Second, what we hear about a situation is always heavily informed by whom we hear it from. If I tell you I was in an argument with Jack, and he used some false statistics to try to support his point, you're not getting Jack's side of the story, and unless you're very conscientious in trying to keep an open mind (or you're already very skeptical of me), you'll tend to form your perception of the situation based more on my view than Jack's.

     Third is a phenomenon I've seen countless times in conversations and debates in many different topics: someone says something, and someone else says they shouldn't say that because it's wrong or it's false or it's offensive, and the first person protests that they have every right to say that because free speech. Well, yes, of course they have the right to speak their mind, but that's a completely irrelevant argument (and a pretty poor way to defend one's position). Freedom of speech necessarily includes the right to opine on the merits of the content of someone else's free speech, and criticism is not censorship. Indeed, it's almost antithetical to censorship; to engage with disagreement and articulate reasons for that disagreement depends upon admitting the contested idea into the the discourse, if only to be considered and rejected.

     Fourth, any claim you hear more than once tends to sound more credible the more you hear it, and the more people you hear it from. And whether you consciously accept the claim or not, it still primes you to interpret new experiences in light of its paradigm. A lot of prejudice gains traction this way in a vicious circle of subjectivity. An initially not-at-all prejudiced cop, for example, might hear it said that black people commit more crimes, and vigorously reject the idea, but from that moment on black suspects will be more memorable as data points, and after a while he may find that he's pulling over black motorists at a higher rate than white ones, thus making proportionately more arrests of blacks, and eventually concluding by golly, they do form a higher percentage of the crimes he catches.
     I should stress that this not in itself pathological; it's actually how correct ideas propagate, as well. But it's imperfect and can serve to amplify ideas regardless of whether or not they are true.

     Fifth, and related to (4), is that once something becomes A Thing, a perceived general trend rather than a collection of individual instances, it becomes much, much harder to dislodge. It's like the Gish Gallop I talked about in this post; refuting a single example instance, even most or all actual examples cited, cannot prove that all those nebulous others (of which the refuted examples are just one picked at random) don't actually exist. "Okay, sure, that might be a bad example, but what about all those other times that A was B?" In a way, it's a manifestation of the principle I mentioned at the end of (1): a broad generalization is much easier to remember and work with than analyzing individual instances.

     So there's the groundwork. What does it mean for the proposition that Political Correctness will be the death of free speech?

     There's little doubt that some social norms have been shifting over time, and some things that were once accepted as normal (and normative) are now condemned. Making a racist or sexist or homophobic joke that once would have got laughs (or a polite but maybe uncomfortable smile) will now often attract open criticism. But these changes take time, and they take longer when the underlying idea is not obvious. The fact that jokes are jokes introduces some complexity that makes it easier to resist criticism, for example; it's quite natural and quite reasonable to disavow actual racist beliefs by insisting that you were really just telling a joke that you thought was funny. It can be quite difficult to understand, in some cases, why an apparently harmless joke is based upon (and reinforces) a fundamentally harmful assumption, and it's much easier cognitively to say "it's just a joke".
     And so when you get a critical reply to what was meant to be funny, when you're treated like the bad guy for trying to inject a little levity, it's really hard not to conclude that they misunderstood and are wrong (too sensitive, too angry, to hateful) to be offended (1). And when they object, you might (3) defend yourself by saying you have a right to tell whatever joke you want, because free speech. And maybe you'll go tell a friend about what happened, who will of course hear it from your perspective (2). And since you've chosen them as a sympathetic ear, it's likely they'll relate it to a similar experience of their own, and now you have two instances of A Thing (4). And all it takes at this point is for someone to name the Thing, and then the label of "Political Correctness" catches on and examples suddenly appear everywhere you look.
     There is no shortage of people willing to provide examples, many of which will be apocryphal or distorted (2). You will hear second-hand accounts of how this or that Act of Parliament or court decision criminalizes free speech, and because it fits into The Thing, you'll accept them as credible or even authoritative. Last year, for example, the House of Commons passed motion M-103, which condemns religious discrimination and Islamophobia in particular. It's a motion, and not a bill, which means it doesn't enact any kind of legal consequence; it's no more binding than Parliament voting to wish someone a happy birthday. But I keep hearing from people who think it means you can't criticize Islam or you'll go to jail. And even if this example of political correctness killing free speech turns out to be wrong, what about all those other examples(4)?

     This doesn't mean, of course, that there isn't such a thing as political correctness, or that it won't be the death of free speech. I don't think that's the case, but for now, I just want to raise the possibility that however solidly real the phenomenon might appear to you, it could appear that way for reasons that have little to do with whether or not it actually exists.

Saturday, 24 March 2018


     One thing that never ceases to amaze me is the sheer naivete of people endorsing violence as a solution to various problems. It is, of course, a cleverly concealed naivete, insofar as favouring violence can make you feel like a toughminded badass, and look down your nose at the idealistic peaceniks and their Kumbaya fantasies. And while it's true that there's a lot of pacifism that is pretty unrealistic (bad guys will not simply lay down their arms), there also seems to be this ridiculous belief that violence can be contained, that it will serve us faithfully, that it will only do what we want it to do and then it'll stop.

     Case in point: there's a cluster of memes that have been circulating for some time now with various images underlying text that reads something to the effect of: "If duelling made a comeback, people these days would be a whole lot less 'offended'."

     Now, to begin with, no they wouldn't. People would be at least as offended as they are now, in no small part because threatening people with violence for expressing themselves in a way you don't like is not far from the top of the list of offensive behaviours. It's probably true that they'd be less inclined to complain about being offended, but that's not at all the same thing.
     But that's the people who aren't good at duelling, or those who are but just really don't want to have to kill someone. Among the people who enjoy violence and are good at it, being offended would become a popular and lucrative hobby. It's amazing how easy it is to be offended by, say, the business rival of a client, or someone your client really really doesn't want as an in-law...
     This is pretty much exactly what happened in Scandinavia, back in the days when holmgang was a lawful way of resolving disputes. Not surprisingly, there were people who made a living going around picking fights with people, and the only people who could defeat them were too busy making their living the same way. Eventually it was abolished because it was profoundly unjust and horribly abused.

     Oh, but it was abused. That wasn't how it was supposed to work. Some bad apples took a perfectly sensible system that would have worked just fine to make everyone be polite and respectful to each other, and they corrupted it into something evil.
     See, there's the naivete I'm talking about. This amazingly selective approach to violence, this belief that we can allow duelling as a remedy only for people who are legitimately, sincerely offended, while somehow magically excluding it from people who are only pretending to be offended for some ulterior motive. It's that same fantastic belief that leads people to think we can somehow magically tell the difference between good guys with guns and bad guys with guns. Or that it's important to ensure the population is armed so they can overthrow the government if it becomes too tyrannical, because somehow it'll only be good decent law-and-freedom loving patriots who would be able to seize power from the tyrants by force of arms, and not evil ambitious tyrants who want to seize power for themselves by force of arms.

     I understand being frustrated with the political process, losing faith in democracy and negotiation. and despairing of ever being able to fix things by these means. And I know what it is to feel certain beyond a reasonable doubt in the righteousness of my cause to warrant meting out just punishment to the evil-doer. I've been temped by violence many times, and still am from time to time.  I've heard the beast ask to be let out of its cage, just a little bit, just to get that one guy who really really deserves it and that'll be the end of it. But that beast lies, and it is naive to trust it to go back into the cage.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

What's all this about assault rifles?

     Disclosure: When it comes to guns, I am neither an enthusiast nor an expert. That said, I aspire to Socratic wisdom in most subjects, which is to say that I try to learn enough to have a good idea of just how much there is I don't know. And in so doing, I often learn enough to recognize when someone else does not know what they're talking about.

     In the gun control debate, I am beginning to recognize a lot of that on both sides. I'm sympathetic to those gun enthusiasts who criticize gun control advocates for not knowing what they're talking about when they say they want to ban assault rifles and who seem to be concerned more with what the weapon looks like than how it works.
     The enthusiast may go on to cite that an assault rifle is defined as a select-fire rifle that fires an intermediate cartridge stored in a detachable magazine. Select-fire means you can switch between semi-automatic (the weapon fires one bullet per pull of the trigger) and automatic fire (it fires more than one bullet per trigger pull). And, since full-auto weapons are already largely restricted from civilian hands and the AR15 is normally only available in semi-automatic configurations, it's not even a true assault rifle and you dumb ignorant gun-grabbers don't even know what you're talking about so shut up.

     Well, that's true, as far as it goes. But the select-fire distinction isn't really quite as meaningful as that makes it sound, at least as far as assault rifles are concerned. And here's where I'm going to talk technically about guns without being an expert.
     Anti-gun people often like to say that assault rifles are designed to kill large numbers of people very quickly, but that's not quite true. They are designed to be effective combat weapons, which means they're meant to be used against similarly armed people who are also actively trying to shoot back. For combat, semi-automatic fire and a large magazine is essential. It just so happens that these properties also make them ridiculously efficient at killing lots of people who are not firing back.
     See, in just about any kind of combat, you have to commit yourself to an attack. While you're in the en garde position with a sword, for example, you are ready to strike, parry, advance, retreat, depending on what you need to do. But when you commit to an attack, say, a lunge, you move out of the ready position, and your options suddenly narrow for a time. That's why we train so often to recover from a lunge, so that we can quickly return to the en garde position; you're vulnerable mid-attack, or mid-parry, or mid anything other than a guard position.
     It's the same with firearms. When you're in a ready position, you can aim and fire at a target of opportunity, or duck for cover, or advance or retreat. When you commit to firing a shot, you lose these other options for as long as it takes for you to recover from the recoil and reload for the next shot. In the days of muskets and muzzle-loading cannon, this took quite some time, and in fact that's where the tradition of the gun salute comes from: by firing your gun into the air, you demonstrated peaceful intentions since your weapon was now unloaded.
     So just as fencers gain an advantage by being able to recover into the en garde position quickly, combatants with firearms need to be able to return to their ready position quickly after firing. This is what has driven so many advances in firearm technology over the years, from pre-measured paper packet of gunpowder to the Remington repeating rifle to the Colt revolver to the modern semi-automatic, where the gun automatically ejects a spent shell casing and chambers a new round after firing, so you are back in your ready-to-fire position a fraction of a second after pulling the trigger. And this is important because real firefights are not just blasting away at enemy targets; they involve cover and concealment, maneuvering for position, feints and withdrawals and all sorts of tactical stuff I don't know about, because remember that the enemy is also trying to shoot back. So the less time you spend reloading, the more time you are ready to act or react, and the more effective you'll be.

     Now, once you have a gun that reloads itself after firing, it's a ridiculously easy matter to make it fire again and again and again while the trigger is still held in the firing position, so fully-automatic machine-guns are a natural consequence of this development. Machine guns fire full auto, hosing down an area with a continuous stream of bullets. We think of the appalling slaughter of the early part of the First World War, where a single machine gun nest could mow down hundreds of soldiers at a time as they tried to charge. And not coincidentally, a weapon designed to efficiently stop a massed infantry charge is just as efficient against massed civilians in a shopping mall.
     Full auto is, to be sure, a terrifying thing, but it's actually not what makes an assault rifle effective. In fact, they tried having your basic infantry assault rifle be full auto for a while in Vietnam, but it turned out to be a really, really bad idea. It used up a ridiculous amount of ammunition (which is heavy to carry around and thus never available in unlimited quantities), and didn't actually kill more enemies. Sure, it has its uses, but that's why infantry squads have a dedicated light machinegunner. Today, the typical assault rifle's selector does not have a setting for full-auto; instead, it can be set to fire a burst of 3 rounds per pull of the trigger.
     Remember that the main value in a semi-automatic weapon in combat is that you spend more time in your ready position, and less time reloading between attacks (pulls of the trigger). The more bullets fired per attack, the fewer attacks you can make before you have to reload. So it's actually better, for the most part, not to be firing bursts all the time.

     So that's why I say that the distinction between the semi-automatic AR15 and the select-fire capability of a military assault rifle isn't really that significant. (I'm not absolutely clear on why military assault rifles even have a burst setting, though I imagine it's for when you're reasonably confident you're actually going to hit the target and want to make sure you do damage, while maybe semi-auto fire is more for covering fire, making the enemy keep his head down while your buddy moves to a better position, stuff like that.)
     They can both fire the same number of attacks in the same amount of time; on burst setting, the military weapon will make fewer attacks, but those attacks will probably do more damage with three bullets instead of just one. And when firing at unarmoured civilian targets, that's just overkill.

     So bickering about whether or not an AR15 is technically an "assault rifle" is an unimportant distraction from the question as to whether or not they should be restricted. Select-fire or just semi-automatic, the weapon was designed for battle. Not for hunting, not for target practice, not for home defence (the typical home defense scenario is not a prolonged firefight). Battle.
     I'm not going to argue here whether or not such weapons should be in private hands.  I've already made my position on gun control fairly clear in other posts, and we can argue in the comment threads there. But feel free to correct me if I've made factual errors in my discussion of weapons and tactics.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Passive Racism

     I was just arguing with someone about the definition of racism. He seemed to believe that racism was all about hate, that if you didn't hate you weren't racist. So I proposed the following thought experiment: Suppose you're a white person living in a society in which nobody hates anyone, but everyone believes everyone else is racist. You're sitting in a coffee shop full of white customers, when in walks a black customer. You don't mind, but you look around a bit because you want to see how the other customers react. The shopkeeper looks nervous, too, and seems to be trying to get the black customer to leave, pretending not to notice them at first, then when that doesn't work, serving them very brusquely and putting their drink in a to-go cup instead of a china mug. It seems a little rude, actually, but you don't say anything because, well, it's none of your business and anyway nobody else will back you up, since as far as you know, you're the only person who doesn't hate blacks. (You don't know it, of course, but the only reason the shopkeeper is acting this way is because she's worried she'll lose you as a customer if she doesn't get rid of the black customer.)
     This dynamic applies throughout this hate-free society. Black applicants have trouble getting hired, getting loans for housing, getting witnesses to exonerate them when accused of crimes, etc. Nobody hates them, but everybody thinks everybody else does, and nobody wants to anger the majority. Maybe some people even go out of their way to pander to what they think the majority wants. Maybe the coffee shop puts up a sign "No Colored" and refuses to serve black customers at all. Not out of hate, but just because they think (perhaps even accurately) that the black customers they lose spend less than the white customers they'll gain. Just a business decision, no racist motives involved. Maybe a politician decides to pander even more, promising policies of segregation and selective advantages for whites, not because he actually hates blacks but because he wants white votes. And, depending on how cleverly he makes his pitch, it might actually work. After all, if he offers a 10% tax cut to all whites, for example, it's pretty easy to rationalize that isn't really taking anything away from anyone else (even though it is), so hey, why not vote for it?
     And so, you could end up with a full-blown apartheid state, full of aggressively discriminatory policies and institutions, in which each and every person can still quite sincerely and honestly profess not to hate anyone. Not a single racist to be found anywhere, and yet a society that is every bit as thoroughly and consistently racist as if it were deliberately set up by racists. 
     Now imagine someone protests this state of affairs, and suggests that maybe we should reform some of these unjust institutions that just happen to have these racist effects. You might wholeheartedly agree in principle, because after all you’re not racist. But that 10% tax break for whites? Hey, you need that; how else can you afford to support your family? And you’re not racist; why should you be punished by a tax hike? That might be going a little too far, and so maybe you voice some opposition to the idea. Pretty soon you’re actively opposing efforts to implement the sorts of changes that a truly equal society would require. And now you’re acting like a racist, though not because you hate anyone because golly you know deep down you really truly don’t hate anyone. You just don’t think it’s fair that you should have to give up any of the advantages you’ve come to feel entitled to. But heck no, you're not racist, are you? Of course not! And anyone who says so just doesn't understand the real you, right?
     This isn’t quite the sort of world we live in, but only because in our world, there actually are people who genuinely and openly hate on the basis of race, though I suspect there are relatively few of them. Most people today really like to think they’re not racist, and if hatred were a necessary ingredient of racism, then they’d be right. 
But as the thought experiment shows, you don’t need hate to have a thoroughly racist society. You don’t even need indifference. Maybe you weep the sincerest tears of private anguish at the racial injustice of your society, and maybe your participation in these institutions and practices is with the greatest reluctance, but remember that every single other member of your society might be weeping their own tears just as sincerely over the very same injustice, and yet somehow it persists, because nobody is willing to do anything about it.

     And believing “I’m not racist!” is one of the ways we tell ourselves we don’t have to.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Now is not the time

     After another shocking mass shooting, emotions are always high.  People are understandably afraid and angry, and desperately looking for a solution -- any solution -- without stopping to carefully and rationally consider how those "solutions" will actually affect their long term security. They just want to do something about it.
     And of course, there will be people who try to cynically exploit these passions for their own ends.

     But now is not the time to be trying to sell more guns. Out of respect to the victims, I am calling for a  ___ day moratorium on the sale of firearms, one day for each victim. Stop trying to monetize this tragedy!

Sunday, 29 October 2017

A Strange Pathology of Lying

     In my last post, I mentioned the Kantian analysis of the morality of lying, something I've been contemplating a lot lately. I've been trying to understand the reasons why people tell lies. Sometimes the reasons are obvious (using a falsehood to convince someone to give you something, for example) but sometimes it can be baffling. Especially confusing to me is the blatant, obvious lie, told directly to the person best equipped to recognize it as such. I've encountered this many times, but the first I can recall was way back when I was in junior high school. I went (as I often did) to the local convenience store with a friend for our usual dose of unnecessary sugary snacks. Having made my purchase first, I went outside to wait, and while sipping on my slush, a couple of girls I didn't know arrived with their dog, who (as dogs do) immediately started sniffing at my crotch. I look at it, it looked at me, and suddenly it yipped and bit my thigh. Playfully, I suppose; it didn't draw blood or even hurt, but it did tear a small hole in my trousers.
    I was startled, and said, "Your dog just bit me!"
    "No it didn't," the dog's owner said.
    "No, look! It tore a hole, right here!"
    "You had that hole before. I saw it," she replied instantly.
    That she would say such a thing surprised me even more than the dog biting me. I was so dumbfounded at the audacity of the lie that I just stood their blinking incredulously as my friend came out with his purchase, and we left.

     I have thought about this incident occasionally over the years, and others like it. For quite some time, I could not make any sense of why she would have expected me to believe her testimony against my own experience. In the moment, the strategy worked by simply stunning me; I just was not prepared for so brazen a falsehood, spoken with such confidence. But I found it hard to imagine that being a viable long-term strategy, because sooner or later people will stop being surprised.
     Eventually, it made sense when I realized she wasn't lying to convince me; she was lying to her friend, who would very probably trust her over a complete stranger, and feel obliged out of loyalty to back her up. She may also have been signalling to me that she was prepared to lie if I took the matter to some authority, and that I should expect her friend to support her story over mine. For her friend, it was a loyalty test.

      And so I can see how a narcissist can easily fall into the habit of lying like that. Quite apart from the fact that it often works (at least with people who are unprepared for it) to deflect an accusation, there must be a sense of power and affirmation, when your friend who knows you're (probably) lying, goes along with it out of loyalty to you. When you persuade your friend to do the right thing, you can't really take all the credit for it, but if you get them to do something wrong out of loyalty to you, you know you can take it personally. It must be quite a rush.