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.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Guns for Self-Defense: A Kantian Answer

     I've always been fond of Kant's intensely logical approach to ethics that culminates in his categorical imperative: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law."
     That's pretty dense text, so let me illustrate it with probably the most famous example, his stand on lying.

     Suppose you're in a situation where you might be considering telling a lie. Say, for example, you're applying for a loan, and the applications asks you to state your annual income. You know that if you put down anything less than $50,000 a year, you will be refused the loan.  You also know you only make $42,000 a year. So the only way you can get this loan is if you lie about your current income.
     Now, applying Kant's categorical imperative means that you should be able to wish that everyone in your situation would act exactly as you would. If you decide that you should lie on the loan application, then you're deciding that everyone ought to lie when it's the only way to get the loan. But that would mean that the loan officer would expect people to lie, and thus know that she couldn't rely on the information on the application form. And this, of course, would completely defeat the purpose of lying in the first place. Thus, you cannot rationally lie on the form while wishing that everyone else would do the same thing in your situation. You end up having to either accept that you have a moral duty not to lie, or come up with some special rule that only applies to you and nobody else. And while lots of people do indeed think they're just that special, it's kind of hard to get the rest of us to agree on who that one special exempt person should be. (And, in the case of lying, it still won't work because you need your status as the one special person to be a secret, or again, no one will believe what you say.)

     Well, there's a very similar logic to the issue of carrying guns for self-defense. Just yesterday I saw (again) one of those "share if you agree!" memes urging for Canada's laws to be revised to allow people to carry concealed firearms to protect themselves. And sure, at first glance, that seems like a reasonable thing to want. If you're afraid some random stranger might attack you, naturally you're going to want to be able to arm yourself.
     But what happens if you apply the categorical imperative here? You, in arming yourself against random strangers, must also wish that everyone else should arm themselves against random strangers who might attack them. And bear in mind: to them, you are one of those random strangers who might attack them.
     I often hear from gun advocates that we shouldn't be afraid of them being armed because obviously law-abiding citizens aren't going to shoot you if you don't attack them first. And yet, their argument for going around armed is based on a fear that they will be attacked by a random stranger they didn't attack first.
     The rule cannot be universalized. At some point they have to resort to special pleading. Their fear of random strangers is rational enough to warrant getting a gun, but our fear of random strangers is not rational enough to warrant prohibiting them from getting a gun. The problem is that there is no principled way to distinguish between good guys who just want to defend themselves and any other random stranger.

     In short, if you can't trust me not to attack you, why should I trust you not to attack me?

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Another idiot. Stay calm, people.

     Last night, in my home town of Edmonton, Alberta, someone smashed a car into a barricade and stabbed a police officer before running off. Later, in a rented truck, the same person (it's alleged) led police on a violent and dangerous chase, deliberately running down pedestrians before flipping the truck and finally being apprehended. It's being investigated by police as an incident of terrorism, in part because reportedly an ISIS flag was found in his car.

     Again, I want to urge people to keep this in perspective. Some idiot did roughly the same amount of damage as a single drunk driver; the only difference is that maybe he was drunk on ideology instead of whiskey.
     I've said most of what I ever want to have to say about this kind of thing. Here and here and here. These guys are idiots, and there's no reason to be more afraid of them than of a drunk or negligent person in any other capacity. And indeed, there's good reason not to be afraid of them, because unlike the drunk driver, the wannabe terrorist is actively trying to make you afraid; that's his whole goal. If we stop reacting as if these idiots are some huge powerful monster that Must Be Stopped, maybe they might figure out sooner that random acts of violence don't really advance their cause. (Yes, of course they must be stopped, but rewarding them by panicking in abject fear/rage is not an effective way to do that. They are basically criminals, and we have a legal system designed to deal with criminals; they're not an enemy army, as much as they may be deluded into thinking of themselves as such, and we don't need to treat them as one.)

     I think all I want to add right now is to just comment on how spectacularly pathetic this sort of terrorism is, when you stop to think about it. I mean, Edmonton suffers dozens of traffic deaths and hundreds of serious injuries every year, simply as a result of basic incompetence behind the wheel. "Meet our demands, or we will crush you with our mighty incompetence!"
     Look, all you devout DAESh sympathizers and wannabe martyrs. These vehicular assaults do not show you to be righteous or heroic or mighty or determined. You're literally doing what the rest of us do by accident. The message this really sends is that you are so miserable, powerless and desperate that you can't think of any better way to express yourselves than to make other people suffer unnecessarily. That's terribly sad on so many levels, not least of which is that you make it pretty much impossible for any decent person to actually help you. And the thing is, most of us actually want you to be happy and fulfilled. Happy and fulfilled people don't do that stuff.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

I will be forced to...

     There's something that happens a lot in movies and TV shows, and it always annoys me when it does. Scenario: Bad guy is threatening some evil act unless their demands are met. Let's say they're threatening to kill hostages if they don't receive a ransom. And then they says something like, "Do this, or I will be forced to kill a hostage."
     Forced. That's the part that always irks me, because it's such an obvious lie. Maybe it wouldn't bother me so much if it were actually refuted in words, but usually the hostages are rescued or the bomb is defused or the disaster averted by some heroic act of violence (usually aided by some clever detective work). I find myself wishing the negotiator or hero or whoever would just say something like this:

     "No. Let's be clear: Nothing I do forces you to kill hostages. You chose to create this situation, you took those hostages, and you are responsible for the choice to kill them or not. You don't get to pretend this is someone else's fault. You want to be in control? Fine. You're in control. But don't turn around and tell me I'm the one who decides whether they live or die."

     Of course, I'm not a trained hostage negotiator. I have no idea what they are taught about how to deal with this sort of situation, and it might be that what I long to hear in a crime drama is the exact opposite of what a knowledgeable professional would be saying in real life. Even so, in the TV drama, I'd like at least to hear the argument refuted, maybe not directly to the bad guy, but by someone on camera.

     To be sure, as I’ve written before, it can be rational to tie your hands, to make it impossible for you to change your mind about a course of action, so as to make for credible threats or promises. It can, therefore, be a perfectly sensible strategy for the hostage-taker to commit irrevocably to killing the hostages if the demands are not met. This was the whole idea behind Mutual Assured Destruction, which arguably helped prevent the Cold War from heating up. 
     But the antagonists in the Cold War went to great lengths to establish technical systems to actually take away the element of choice in order to render the retaliatory threat credible; the typical hostage-taker in a movie or TV show usually hasn’t had the time or resources to do that, and attempts to rely on getting people to believe them, that they’re 100% serious and they really really mean it, they’ll kill a hostage, they swear. And the trouble there is that it’s actually only half of what they need to convince people of, and the less important half at that; I might very easily believe you're willing to kill the hostages, but if I doubt you'll release them after I meet your demands, you'll have a hard time getting me to cooperate.  (This is probably the main reason there have been so very few airline hijackings since 2001; passengers and crew now believe there is absolutely nothing to be gained by complying or cooperating in any way.)

     So that's what bothers me about the "I will be forced to..." language. It's not just that it's a lie. It's that it's such a stupid lie, inconsistent with its own purpose on so many levels. It's uttered by someone who's trying to assert absolute control over the situation, while at the same time it disingenuously disavows that very control. Meanwhile, its success depends on creating trust (the trust that compliance will be rewarded) even as it undermines that very trust.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

On Property Rights and Game Rules

     The new leader of the Conservative Party of Canada has taken the position that property rights should be enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I'd like to take a moment to explain why that's actually not such a great idea. I’ll start by talking about a problem I struggled with many years ago, designing a rules system for a live roleplaying game.

     In most any roleplaying game, there’s a fictional world in which the players' characters live and operate, and that world usually includes physical artifacts like weapons, tools, money and so on, many of which can change hands during the course of the game. In a live action roleplaying game, where players wear costumes and move around in an actual physical site, these items are represented by actual physical props or tokens.
     But here’s the problem: those actual physical props often belong to individual players, and while a player may be obliged under the game rules to let an opponent take the imaginary game world item the prop represents, the prop itself may be something they’re unwilling to part with. 
     Now, there are a number of ways to get around this, and in practice it’s not usually a huge problem because the players usually understand from the outset what’s involved in playing the game. But I was still interested in structuring the game rules so that they’d mesh with the laws of the real world.
     The solution I adopted was to issue paper chits to represent (and to document the in-game effect of) every game item for which these issues might arise, and to constitute all of these chits as the legal property of the game organizers, not the players who may happen to be in possession of them. The players would be permitted to carry and use the game items, subject to the rules imposed by the game organizers. You could use your own costume or prop items for roleplaying purposes, and players often would tape these chits to their prop weapons to make brandishing them more dramatically satisfying, but as far as the game itself was concerned, the chit was the item; the player’s real-world property was merely a visualization aid.
     So, within the game world, there was an emergent economy. Some players might have skills or abilities that they used to collect various natural resources (represented by chits) that other players might process into various other goods (also represented by chits) that might be traded to other players, and so on. And within that context, it would be completely appropriate for your character to speak of the chit in your hand as your sword, your own rightful property that it would be immoral and illegal to steal from you, while in the ‘real world’ the chit was legally the property of the game organizers, whose property rights would be violated if you failed to deal with it in accordance with the rules they’d specified. You’d be cheating (and breaching a real-world contract) if you failed to turn it over to a player whose character had satisfied the game rule requirements to take it from you by game-force.

     Consider, then, what happened here. The goal of the game organizers is to create a playable game world in which people can pursue various objectives, interact in a variety of ways, and exchange various items in ways that advance the storytelling objectives of the game organizers. And so rules were created governing how the game resources, i.e. the items, would change hands within the game world. The question of which character owns any given item is answered with reference to those game rules: did the character obtain possession of it in accordance with the rules of the game? Ownership is not a fundamental fact-about-the-world that precedes the rules;  it is a consequence of applying those rules. 
     And those rules can change from time to time, as the rulemakers recognize some inadequacy or injustice that needs to be fixed. Sometimes that means a player is going to be disappointed, say, when an overpowered magic sword gets nerfed, and players do sometimes complain bitterly when something like that happens. Changing the rules in any way introduces disruptions and continuity issues, and is generally to be avoided, but players have no particular right to be insulated against changes to the game rules. 

     I want to argue that this is almost exactly analogous to the property rights we enjoy in the ‘real’ world. We have, as a society, developed elaborate rules to facilitate the distribution of goods and services in a free and democratic society, and these rules involve a concept we call “ownership”. It’s a pretty good system, overall, though it does lead to some injustices and might need some tweaking now and then. Intellectual property is an example of such a tweak, intended to allow creators of ideas (which, once created, are no longer subject to rules of scarcity) to participate in an economy where the food, clothing and shelter they need are in finite supply. 
     So this is what I mean when I say that property rights are not fundamental. They’re not the basic rights upon which the entire legal system is built, but rather consequences of that legal system. You claim to own a parcel of land? Okay, we can apply the rules and test that claim (checking the registry at the Land Titles Office), and if you think there’s a mistake you can argue for a judge to issue an order registering what it ought to be. Your right to a fair procedure in answering the question is fundamental to our entire system; your right to a particular outcome of that procedure is not.

     That is why I argue that property rights should not be enshrined explicitly in the Charter. We may decide, as happens from time to time, that there’s a flaw in our property system, and when that happens we can and should be able to fix it. That someone ends up less well-off does not necessarily mean that they have suffered an injustice, and to see this most clearly one need only consider the example of chattel slavery. At one time, the law recognized property rights in human beings: some people were owned by other people. Eventually that came to be recognized as just plain wrong, and the law had to change.
     Did that change violate the property rights of the former slave holders? Did they lose something for which they ought justly to be compensated? Or did we just come to recognize that we were all wrong about what property rights they actually held, and they were never truly entitled to it? People don’t have a right to be compensated for taking away something they should never have had in the first place.

     Slavery may be an extreme example, but it illustrates clearly that even legally recognized official title to something (or someone) may turn out to be a gross injustice to be remedied. Society needs to be able to adjust the rules of property from time to time, and it will not always be the case that a right that’s taken away needs to be compensated in some way. 

     To put it another way, our economy is in some sense a game, and when we adjust the rules to make the game better, we have no obligation to preserve the advantages enjoyed by the people who have been winning under earlier versions of the rules.