Free Will and Changing Your Mind

There was a very good question posed to Sam Harris on his podcast which was:

“If free will is an illusion, why are intentions morally relevant?”

Sam Harris’ answer was very good, but I wanted to throw in my own answer as well.  This also brought to the fore questions I have been asking for years and has led me on a path to learn about the brain and cognitive science: “How effectively can we change our own minds about things?  And what is the manner in which we can change our mind?”  Now perhaps to some, the question posed to Sam Harris doesn’t seem related, but I think there is a very important connection here.

Whether or not you agree that free will is an illusion or not, isn’t something I want to debate with right now.  I haven’t heard a compelling reason in favor of the idea of free will in some time.  I think what the more interest question is to understand why people are against the idea of free will being an illusion.  Sure you could argue that religion is part of that reason, but even secular people are uncomfortable with the idea.  The question posed to Sam Harris says it all.  If there is no free will, how is anybody responsible for their actions?

The word responsible is the word that doesn’t belong here, and this is what most people seem to miss.  This has important consequences for our justice system.  So then why do intentions matter?  The reason why intentions matter is because of what it says about your brain.  Let’s say I’m driving and I accidentally hit a cyclist, what does this say about me as a person?  I may be careless on the road.  Maybe I need to take some more driver training classes.  Maybe I need glasses.  Maybe if I’ve gotten into numerous accidents it means I probably shouldn’t drive any more.   What if I feel genuine remorse for what I’ve done?  Doesn’t that say something about how my brain works as well?  Do I belong in jail?  I don’t think so.  But if on the other hand I see that cyclist and get a sinister grin on my face and speed up and mow that cyclist down, what does this say about me?  It says that I am a person who takes joy about causing harm to others.  I might not feel remorse…maybe I do…but there would be something troubling about my mind that speaks to what future actions I am likely to take.  What if I know the cyclist and hate the person and that’s why I mow them down?  This also says something troubling about future actions I might make.  Because who might be the next person I hate, and what might I do to them?

I have talked about the idea of “personal responsibility” before and as I write this post it becomes even clearer why that phrase confuses me.  Having a party centered around personal responsibility seems to be an even bigger mistake.  We are a social species and it’s easy to say we are responsible for ourselves, but I don’t think that’s really the case.  It is the environment which shapes the individual and we have laws in large part not to control individual behaviors but to protect society.  It seems to me that it is we as a society, as other people in a person’s life that intervene to impact someone’s behavior.  And when a person does change their behavior it is a response to what society values, or through some personal experience in interacting with society or their environment that changes one’s mind.  If I am going around running people down with my car, whether accidentally, or on purpose, it is society that in some way says hey you can’t be doing that and finds an appropriate way to make me less of a danger.  If I take it upon myself to make changes, it is because of some emotional reaction to what I’ve done that is the impetus for change.  Rather than a decision to change, my body, my mind doesn’t want to feel a certain way and thus pushes me in a direction to not feel that way again.  My consciousness of that motivation is what gives me the illusion of free will.

Change in an individual seems to be a result not of an individual’s decisions, but rather the environmental context in which we live.  If society hasn’t shaped us to be more receptive to changing our mind, it is actively intervening to try and convince us to reform our views.  Sometimes successfully, sometimes not.  It seems that there is no real reason for me to want to change my mind about anything when I think about it.  I mean if what I believe has kept me alive so far, to be of an age to reproduce and raise children to a sufficient age so they can reproduce then what I believe must be pretty reasonable.  Now for a social species it could be that what I believe is very counter to surviving well with the people around me.  But as long as I generally believe what the “group” believes I’ll probably be alright.  Whether those beliefs are true or not makes no difference.  It really doesn’t even make a difference if they are harmful, providing that harm doesn’t lead to any consequences that would significantly reduce my chances to reproduce.

As we realize the global society that we live in, and that more and more of us are infringing on each other cultural and intellectual space, as we become more acutely aware of the harm of certain beliefs and values, not just in our community but over the entirety of the planet, I feel it’s important we start asking how can we all get along?  What values should this global community have?  What differences can we afford to maintain and still get diversity?  Does diversity’s value diminish over time if we hope for unity among humankind?  And given how difficult it seems to be to change one’s mind, what are some beliefs we could have that would provide a backdrop to growth for a better future where less humans suffer, and well being is increased?  It is this last question I want to explore a bit more in future posts.  I think tied to this is the area of human emotion which I have become more intrigued with of late.  I think that our emotional and reasoning side are more tied together than we think and that without emotions, at least for humans, growth isn’t possible.

Advertisements

Bad Hoaxes – The Conceptual Misogynist

Several months ago, an “exposé” came out in Skeptic Magazine about a hoax paper that was accepted in a gender studies journal.  The paper was titled The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct, written by James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian.  It’s publication was supposed to expose the gender studies for the postmodern scam it is, that relies on political and emotional truths over scientific ones.   Michael Shermer who runs Skeptic Magazine published this, and people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and many of our other favorite thinkers delighted in this hoax except there was one problem.  It wasn’t a very good hoax.  It was rejected by a mid-tier gender studies journal called Norma, and only accepted in a pay-to-publish journal.  Harris has since rejected it as a good hoax after more information came out as to how it was originally presented and published.  Sadly Shermer has tried to use some hand-waving to say that well it’s still satire and for him it doesn’t matter where it was published, it’s a fair satirical critique for what passes as scholarship.  The style of the hoax is patterned after a hoax in biology committed by Sokal and he seems to still think it was a decent hoax, but even he has admitted that I didn’t actually really prove that gender studies was bereft of scholarship.  You can find Shermer’s apologetics and Sokal’s analysis of the hoax here.  However, the authors of this hoax claim in their original article in Skeptic Magazine that they have successfully done this.  They claim:

There are at least two deeply troublesome diseases damaging the credibility of the peer-review system in fields such as gender studies:

  1. the echo-chamber of morally driven fashionable nonsense coming out of the postmodernist social “sciences” in general, and gender studies departments in particular and
  2. the complex problem of pay-to-publish journals with lax standards that cash in on the ultra-competitive publish-or-perish academic environment. At least one of these sicknesses led to “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” being published as a legitimate piece of academic scholarship, and we can expect proponents of each to lay primary blame upon the other.

They also claim that since Norma recommended the pay-to-publish journal that they must have taken it somewhat seriously. However, it’s also possible that Norma played a hoax on them.  Maybe they recognize it as low grade garbage and just said, well if you want it published take it over to this other journal. Although I will concede that it still might be a problem if an academic journal is still recommending garbage for publication even in low tier journals.  You can read Lindsay and Boghossian’s response to criticisms here.

This issue for me had been put in the past, until I listened recently to a podcast (which I now adore) called Very Bad Wizards, where they interview James Lindsay, one of the co-authors.  I recommend listening to the interview (especially if you like watch mathematicians dance) which starts half way through the podcast, but Lindsay comes off as completely unwilling to concede that the paper wasn’t very successful, and in fact comes off someone who was more interested in mockery than making an honest statement.  He admitted to have no personal expertise in gender studies and thus couldn’t engage in honest criticism.  Despite not having any knowledge of the field still felt that his satire was good satire.  He also claims since the journal it did end up in had at least one reviewer with the requisite expertise to judge the paper that point #1 was in fact proven.  The hosts of the show made several excellent points:

  1. The fact that even a mid-tier journal didn’t publish the paper lends some weight to the fact that Gender Studies does have standards of scholarship.  And even if gender studies was publishing morally fashionable nonsense, this hoax did not prove that.
  2. Low tier pay-to-publish journals exist in numerous fields, so this point could have been proven in numerous areas of study.
  3. The velocity in which many male scholars jumped on the bandwagon of this hoax without giving it the serious critical thought it should have had before getting behind it, makes the reaction to the hoax guilty of the same charge of “morally fashionable”. How are we to take a criticism of gender studies seriously when it I also acts in the same way as they claim the field of gender studies acts?

Given that every field probably has some junk science and some crap journals I asked myself the question, why did these two men pick gender studies?  Why was the hilarity all coming from men.  I’ll admit, I myself fell into this without the requisite critical thinking that I should have had.  I hold Skeptic Magazine in higher regards (that’s dropped a couple notches now) and I’d like to believe that it’s just because I enjoy a good hoax, and that I do think it’s important to point out junk science, but the more I reflected, I thought it’s quite interesting how quick men were to jump on this.  There seems to be something else going on, even if somewhat unconscious.  I am quite aware of the scholarly work that is done in feminism, but on reflection, even if this hoax had proved what it attempted to prove, I was wrong to post the hoax originally on Facebook, because I don’t believe it represents anything normative about gender or feminist research, and while there may be some bad research out there, given the tilt against women in our society both nationally and internationally if there are criticisms to be had it should be done honestly and in good faith and not in the manner that this was done.  At seems at the very least there is still an undercurrent of misogyny in this hoax and it’s unnecessary.

Lindsay also claims that the field of gender studies largely ignores robust scientific evidence of differences between genders.  As a follow up to this post I’d like to challenge this evidence in a post later to come.  There I will make the case that even if we did find such evidence I’d like to address how minimal and possibly pointless such gender differences are, and that compared to socialized gender constructs, biological differences between the sexes are largely irrelevant.

For now, let’s have less hoaxes that genders that are disadvantaged by society, where many serious problems still exist.  I am quite certain that there is a lot of bad scholarship going on out there in academia, and I’d like to believe that this is the main reason I initially delighted in the hoax.  On reflection it was in poor taste and upon learning more about it, it didn’t prove what it set out to prove.  Let’s be united against bad scholarship wherever it might be and instead of being clueless about the field as James Lindsay claimed he was, let’s have educated criticism.

The Recipe for a Shooter

On June 14th, 2017, James T. Hodgkinson walked into a baseball field where the Republican congressional baseball team was practicing and opened fire.  In the end 6 people had been injured and the shooter was killed by law enforcement on the scene in a shootout.  It should be no surprise that this is a situation that can easily be made political.  This was not a random act of terrorism.  The intent was to attack members of the GOP, and the shooter knew who would be at the baseball diamond that day, and the political views of this shooter were that of a “liberal”.

Given the growing unreasonableness on the left, such as the suppression of free speech on university campuses and even outbreaks of violence, it might be easy to say that conservatives are under attack by liberals and that we must increasingly become concerned about liberals.  If we look at the trends of mass shootings over the past 10 years I think we can easily see that this is not a partisan problem.  This is just another of many mass shootings in this country.  Another act of terror of the many that go through our news cycle, where nothing gets done.  But if we want to look at direct response to shootings that were politically based, when Gabby Giffords was shot, nothing was done legislatively because of that incident so it doesn’t seem likely anything will change now.  However, this administration hasn’t been terribly predictable so who knows?

When the name of the shooter was identified, knowing that he shot at Republican politicians, I was immediately interested in who the man was, because I was worried that his political views would be on the democratic side and that in the face of our current administration this might spell trouble for other liberals.  I imagine it is similar to the feeling a good law abiding Muslim must feel when a shooting happens.  Hoping the shooter isn’t a follower of Islam.  My Google search brought me to his Facebook profile.  This was literally a minute after his name had been released by the news.  I immediately saw that he was a Bernie supporter and was anti-Trump and naturally I groaned.  Several posts were public as is typical on any profile that shares stories.  What happened next was something I did not expect.  People began commenting on those posts.  Within a minute, hundreds of comments had been made with the larger proportion of those comments being insults hurled at the shooter.  The ugliness of humanity laid bare before me, and it was painful to see watch some meaningless rage.  One might argue that had this rage been directed to the actual shooter, maybe we could somehow have sympathy for such actions, but the shooter was dead.  The only people that could possible see this was family.  The anger could only hurt people who were only guilty of knowing the shooter.  No information about his family supporting him had been reported.  He could have been divorced, estranged, hated by them.  Perhaps they knew the man he once was and were simply saddened by the whole situation.  They were perhaps as appalled as anyone else at what Mr. Hodgkinson had done, and were simply grieving at the death of a man they thought they knew, or once knew.  I don’t understand people.  Unless a shooter actually killed somebody that I loved, I can’t imagine myself feeling enough rage to do the equivalent of “spitting on his grave”.

But I then reflected on my initial reactions to the shooting.  They were none too virtuous either.  Worried about how my “group” might be perceived in the future.  And yes even the thought of the irony of Republicans against gun laws, paying some penance for their views floated through my brain.  I am not proud of it, but perhaps this is what we’ve become in a society full of these incidents.  Of course, it’s also natural to have such thoughts, but what actions you take are, in the end, more important.  Despite my thoughts I did not get angry and lash out at anybody.  No shame or mocking.  This is a serious and sad incident and that is the most important position we should take on this matter. And as I saw comment after comment pour out I knew there was something important to be learned here, and wanted to take a few days to collect some thoughts and see what that might be.  I am not sure I’ve completely figured it out, but unfortunately I can’t help but worry that things aren’t going to get better here in the U.S. anytime soon.

CNN laid out quite distinctly all his liberal viewpoints, and that he was anti-GOP, and frustrated by the corruption and income inequality in this country.  The entire laundry list describes most people I know in my life who would never do something like this.  And yes, of course you never know, but I can at least say that probabilistically 99% of the people I know will not do something like this.  When we say that shooters like Dylann Roof are racist and that’s why he did what he did, or that Mr. Hodgkinson was a liberal or Bernie supporter and that’s why he did what he did, is this a fair thing to say?  I don’t believe so.  It ignores the many people who share similar views but don’t do these types of things.  We know John Lennon’s shooter was inspired by Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, but we know that millions of schoolchildren have read the book and certainly had no murderous thoughts because of the book.  The first thing that we have to be honest about, if we truly hope to lessen violent crimes like this in our culture, is that people who do these kinds of things are the confluence of more than one factor.  For any one behavior or trait, or any one environmental influence that you find in the shooter, you will find no solution to what makes somebody do this.  In the population of people that represent any one behavior or influence you will find far more non-killers than killers.

I should point out that there is one trait that all these acts of terrorism have in common.  The killer is male.  Yet of course we will still find far more males who aren’t killers, but it should at least make us ponder, what is it about being male through nature or nurture that increases the odds that they will become a perpetrator of these types of mass shootings?

One of the main points to come out about the shooter is his domestic abuse charge.  Why would someone like this be able to legally own firearms?  I’d like to look at this from two perspectives.  On one hand, it’s easy for everyone to get up in arms about a domestic abuser having a gun, given how often women are the target of incidents with firearms, this should be a no-brainer.  And maybe it is, although there are apparently some loopholes as discussed in the Slate article I just linked, but here is the problem:  he was never convicted.  This matters.  It must.  If we simply start denying people rights based on charges, then the rule of law has no value.

On the other hand, women know all too well about this kind of abuse.  It is very difficult to get a conviction for domestic violence.  What happens if your abuser threatens worse if you report them?  What happens if you do report them thinking, well they will be behind bars so I’ll be okay.  But what happens if you report it, but the cop doesn’t take you seriously?  Or the justice system fails you?  In reading about Mr. Hodgkinson’s domestic abuse case (it was against a daughter and a friend of the daughter), the case seemed a bit strange.  Though charged, he was never convicted because the victims never appeared in court?  Why would this be?  Perhaps they knew his temper.  Perhaps he threatened them. These are all likely scenarios and so the question then becomes, how do we deal with this type of person.  If we believe that evidence is still necessary for conviction, how do we get more people to come forward about their abusers?  How do we protect those victims adequately during and after their case, win or lose?  This is a problem we’ve been trying to tackle for years and there has been some progress, but not enough.  The progress that has been made has been a result of the rise of feminism.  Yes you may actually have to become a feminist if you want to make the situation better for those who experience domestic abuse.  And just because I am sure somebody reading this might say men are the victims of domestic abuse too, I shall freely admit that, yes, this is true.  But that doesn’t mean believing in gender equality is going to make you forget about male victims.  In fact, fighting gender stereotypes that oppress women actually makes things better for men.  Narrow definitions of masculinity and femininity also play into why a lot of men don’t get believed when they say they are victims of abuse.

Finally, we can’t ignore the role mental health plays when it comes to these types of incidences.  In reading about the shooter, beyond the domestic violence incidences, it is clear that he has a history of anger problems.  Anger has been linked recently to gun violence (link is an article that links to the peer-reviewed study but is only the abstract).  From the article:

“Swanson believes that it could be more effective to, instead of looking at mental health history, look at a prospective gun buyer’s record of misdemeanor convictions that could indicate impulsive, explosive and violent behavior.”

The paper also has a somewhat alarming graphic about men who experience excessive anger and gun ownership.

This is only one study and hopefully more research will be done in this area.  It seems also relevant then to ask, where does the shooter’s anger stem from?  Something in his childhood?  Is it some chemical imbalance in his body?  Is too much anger a mental health issue?  I would say yes, but there are a lot of people out there who get angry.  Like many things, any emotional reaction you find exists on a spectrum among people.  We could easily find someone out there who has anger problems but not quite as much as Mr. Hodgkinson, and some people with a little more.  Where do we draw the line and say, “this amount of anger is unhealthy, this amount of anger is healthy?”  And isn’t it more on how we act on that anger?  The study points again to convictions, but if there are none what then? How else might we learn about anger issues?  There are still stigmas for receiving treatment for any type of emotional struggle we are going through are still strong, especially for men.  In our society being aggressive and angry is valued for a man.  Such stereotypes imply that if you were to get help you would be seen as weak and less masculine.  Also, many people think of mental illness as only some condition you are born with or as something serious like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or dementia.  Things like anxiety, depression, anger are things people think we should always be able to control.  Unfortunately, this is not the case and excessive bouts of these things, even if it is temporary within your lifetime can lead to some pretty unhealthy outcomes.

So far, I don’t think I’ve said much new, but I guess one of the other facets of this incidents that inspired me to write this post was to look at the political activism of Mr. Hodgkinson.  Here is a person who has been active politically for some time.  He was a local business owner, was constantly engaged in various political causes.  Signing petitions, getting others to sign.  He was wrote opinion pieces to his local paper.  He volunteered for political campaigns.  Despite his anger problems, here is a man who, at least for a solid portion of his life, tried to solve the problems in society through engagement with people and the system on a non-violent platform.  I’ll quote once again from Sam Harris, because I think these words are very poignant here “…all we have is conversation…you have conversation and violence.  That’s how we can influence one another.  When things really matter and words are insufficient, people show up with guns. That’s the way things are.”  The end of Mr. Hodgkinson’s life are indicative of a man who was suffering mentally.  He was living out of a van, he looked like he was homeless.  Had sold most of his things just to move to D.C.  These aren’t the normal decisions someone makes and at the age of 66, it seems likely that there was at least some brain deterioration going on.  But here was a man who believed strongly about the world not being right, and he wanted to make it right.  And for many years he engaged in that activity non-violently.  Maybe he wasn’t the best representative for his cause, but he also wasn’t wrong.  There has been growing income inequality, the government is corrupt and colluding with the top 1%, and poverty increases in this country.  These are good things to get angry about.  Here is a man who tried for much of his life to use words, and I couldn’t help but thinking of the Sam Harris quote.  The causes the shooter was fighting for really matter, for many of us it feels like words ARE insufficient, and here we have someone showing up with a gun.

I am not trying to make this man seem like some sort of hero, but it made me wonder, given that this was clearly an attack on a political party, what is the difference between a terrorist and a revolutionary?  Numbers and organization?  I think the collective population, regardless of their beliefs, can feel helpless as words seem ineffectual in influencing change.  There are so many people in this world and the weight of it is enormous given the rate we can receive information about all the terrible things happening in it.  It’s more weight than our evolution prepared us for, and as one person it can easily feel like the only way to make an impact in it is to really get noticed.  And violence gets you noticed.  Mr. Hodgkinson has far more people thinking about him then he ever did being involved in politics throughout his life.  So when you have anger issues, problems with gun laws, problems with domestic abuse, a patriarchal society, a corrupt government that doesn’t respond to the people, increasing poverty, how many more people like Mr. Hodgkinson will pop out of the woodwork?  Can we stop them all?  Perhaps this is a commonality among all of these types of shooters.  A desire to be impactful in a world that feels unchangeable or a world that is changing with the feeling that it’s leaving you behind.  Either way, the amount of women doing these things is so negligible that it seems worth asking the question why men seem more susceptible to this type of behavior.

There are no easy answers here, and it’s time we stopped pretending there were.  One’s politics and religion certainly play a role, but so many other things do as well.  Let’s not aim for simple correlations and blame that solve nothing.  We know there are societies where this isn’t as big of a problem.  We are NOT helpless when we work together to build something better.  Change, however, does not happen overnight.  It takes patience and perseverance.  I still hold hope that we can find that change through conversation instead of violence, but I won’t lie and say that a worry that violence will continue to rise grows in the back of my mind.  As I think about all those people hurling out rage on Mr. Hodgkinson’s Facebook page, I wonder which angry person is the next to become violent.  Which one of those angry people has a gun, and with the right confluence of factors is the next one to use it.  For all my talk about conversation, I worry that not enough people are listening anymore.

A Quick Post about Russian Interference

I just listened to an interview today with General Michael V. Hayden on the Waking Up podcast with Sam Harris, who is the former director of the CIA and NSA.  It was short and very educational.  Sam Harris’ last question was about General Hayden’s view on the Russian Hacking scandal.  This is what he had to say and I thought it was worth transcribing.

“The Russians did it. It’s a high confidence judge of the American intelligence community.  They did it to affect the election.  They stole the data, and they washed the data through our friend Julian Assange and some other platforms, and then they put out an army of trolls to touch the data so that Google’s algorithms thought these were trending things so that they would come very much into our consciousness, so it’s incredible technically.  It’s called a covert influence campaign.  It’s the most successful covert influence campaign in the history of covert influence campaigns.

Now I do point out, as somebody who used to run the CIA, I can’t claim that my agency has never been involved in something like this in its history.  Covert influence campaigns do not create fractures in a society, they exploit fractures in a society and make them worse.  So I think the first teaching point after I walk away saying the Russians did this….is shame on us for giving them the opportunity…by being so fractured in our political discourse.”

Listening to the Blues

The current election has shifted a lot of attention away from the issue of police violence, but in searching through some of Sam Harris’ podcasts I found an episode that I found to be very very engaging.  If you want to get the perspective from a well-educated, well-trained police officer (Scott Reitz). I highly recommend listening to this podcast (Episode 25 of Waking up with Sam Harris). I felt it was important to hear this side of things.  I am a big supporter of the black lives matter movement as well, and my goal here isn’t to delegitimatize what is a very legitimate movement, but if we are also in the business of solving problems we need to hear from police officers, and we need to understand what problems they see.

Most people I know are even-minded about the issue.  They know most cops are good people.  They recognize that police are an important part of our society, and they don’t want to see police die.  They also know that there are bad cops, and there are systematic problems with the justice system that need to be addressed.

He raised a number of I think important issues about cops that I found very information.  For instance he said that the difference between the minimum proficiency requirement that cops need to have, and what a good cop needs to have are far apart.  But there is no training you can take for better shooting skills, or better hand to hand combat skills, unless you do it on your own time and own money.  He talked about why cops often fire so many shots at a target.  It’s simply because the hit rate is only at like 13%.  They are trained to take many shots at a subject.  There have been also many changes on how police do their job that have made it harder.  The choke hold for instance which killed Eric Garner, was outlawed, and perhaps for good reason given how it might have impacted somebody with certain health issues.  Garner being no exception.  However, what Mr. Reitz said was that the removal of a cops ability to use this method, took away a main method of incapacitation often used previously.  He also talked about how often tasers and other incapacitation method’s fail.  It was mentioned how recruitment standards have fallen greatly in who they accept.  When he first became an officer in the 70’s he said it was typical for police officers to have university degrees.  This is no longer the case, so standards are being lowered in terms of who they accept.   He was also agreeable to the idea that there are just a lot of cops who shouldn’t be cops.

There were a couple of places I disagreed with Mr. Reitz in the podcast and I wanted to discuss in a little more detail.  At around the 50 minute mark they discuss the topic of “back talk to officers, disrespect, how you should deal with illegal actions by a police officer”.  Mr. Reitz’s advice is that you don’t know the kind of day or week an officer has had.  They see the darker side of society, they often work long hours, and starting off your conversation with a police officer in a combative way, even verbally is a recipe for escalating the situation.  I am not sure that I necessarily disagree with this advice.  But what I started thinking was the following:

  • Nobody likes being treated like a criminal if they’ve done nothing wrong.  Nobody likes having their rights violated even if they have.  Nobody deserves to be shot just for a traffic violation.  I guess in the end, it’s not a reasonable excuse to me that the cop is overworked, or that he’s had a bad week or day that I am somehow asking for abuse by not being as passive and compliant as possible.  That’s victim blaming, and I can agree that to some degree cops are also victims of a system that isn’t giving them the training or the workload to reduce their stress levels.
  • Following from that, why is it not on the cop to think that maybe this person is also having a bad day or week? We are usually not going to be in the best of moods when we are pulled over, but if this is just a small bad incident in a line of bigger ones our attitude may not be great either.  Isn’t possible that a black person might just have felt racially profiled one too many times in his or her life, that they are in a bad mood?  When two people who are having a bad day meet. Right and wrong still matter.  The cop has as much responsibility to act right as the person does.  I think that, and Mr. Reitz seems to argue this at times, is that we are probably better off recognizing the reality that cops face, and that most of them aren’t particularly well-trained, and don’t necessarily have a lot of experience.  Sometimes you do have to be smart over being right.
  • Finally and most importantly, the idea that an officers wrong actions can be rectified after the fact, is not necessarily a guarantee. This is a big part of the frustration expressed by the Black Lives Matters movement.  The wrong actions of the cop, are supported by other cops, and are supported by judges.  In many criminal cases people can’t afford lawyers and they are often bullied into accepting a plea bargain by an overworked public defender and prosecution.  So there is frustration here by many.  They’ve seen what has happened to people they know, especially those with less financial means, and for many, even though they may be putting their very lives in danger by standing up to a cop, don’t have faith in the rest of the system to protect them.  I think we have to recognize this reality as well.

Another area they talked about was gun control.  Sam Harris I think tried to get him out of the practical side of things and just look more at ethics, but I suspect Mr. Reitz is extremely pragmatic, because I think you have to be in his line of work.  As I’ve argued before I think that the love of guns here is something that you have to accept to be in the U.S., but that we can try to fight for a society where we don’t them as much.  Anyway, Mr. Reitz supports the ownership of guns for home protection, but is less than enthusiastic about open carry or conceal carry.  I would expect most cops feel the same way.  In regards to personal protection, I can’t argue in some ways with the idea that a gun is an equalizer.  There are very bad people out there, and they are far meaner and stronger, and having that gun, just in case, is a practical solution to the problem.  Mr. Reitz seemed to take it as a given, however, that those of us in positions where we might be worried about the worst, would still see owning a gun as the only solution.  I know many people who have been victims of crimes, but not all of them seek guns after.  When you come from a place with very few guns, or where it’s more difficult to get one, even when bad situations do happen, guns aren’t the first thing we think of to be safe.  I think that it’s a very American attitude to think that a gun is the only solution.  And the type of violent crime of a complete stranger coming into your home to do unspeakable things to you and your family, while possible, is rare compared to people being victims of homicide or rape by people they know.  I guess it raises the ethical question of: How far do we go to let people feel safe, knowing that a very small percentage of those people would actually be victims in a situation they could have stopped with gun and knowing that the large amount of guns it keeps in society makes more gun violence possible?

I found Mr. Reitz to be quite reasonable and well-informed overall.  He believes that guns should be in lockers and only for hunting or home protection.  Because he also accepts the reality that few people are likely to get the training they need to be able to use a firearm well, and to have practiced shooting targets, and to store and care for it properly.

In the end it was nice to listen to a conversation that was substantive in which the right things were being discussed.  So often on this very important issue we don’t get to have this conversation, because it immediately turns into things like “Cops are heroes!” or “Banning all guns is against the second amendment!”  Imagine if we could always have such thoughtful conversations, we might be able to solve problems that might meet the concerns of both Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter.

In the end I really appreciated Mr. Reitz’ perspective.  I imagine it is generally impossible not to be impacted when your entire career has been dealing with hard cases and the worst of people, even if it’s just a small percentage of the population.  It’s great that he has remained even-minded and thoughtful about his own job.  I really can’t imagine how stressful it is.  In a way we have perhaps made strides in more sensible policing from a policy point of view, but I think when you want to put more public safety and compassion into policing (which is the right thing) that does impact its structure, and what type of resources we have to put in.  To make it work we have to support better training, better mental health support, higher qualifications.  An acquaintance of mine here, when I talked about the attack on public education, said it’s not much better for the police either.  Nobody wants to pay taxes, nobody wants to support the institutions that make for a better society.  Mr. Reitz summed up his thoughts on policing today by the following quote:

“Most police officers out there feel overwhelmed with the demands on them…[we’re saying to them] ‘I want you to hazard your life, but I want you to be really careful in defending yourself’….it’s hard”.

If you have time give the whole thing a listen.  If not, keep trying to have good conversations about this, because it is important.

In the Words of Sam Harris re: Trump

I have wanted to do a blog post on Sam Harris for some time.  I’ve had trouble sort of knowing where to begin.  My first introduction to his work was his short book, or perhaps long essay, on free will.  I found him to be an excellent thinker.  Then I noticed that he was being attacked a lot by the left and I wanted to learn why.  Like many great thinkers, they can seem unfeeling, and I do think there have been many instances where atheists like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris have been taking completely out of context.  For them ideas are not something that can be handled in a sound bite.  They like to break down arguments into their components and take a line of reasoning in a particular direction and test it out.  And I can see why people find distaste for Dawkins at times, and after reading a lot of Sam Harris I can see why there is distaste for him as well.  But I would say if you don’t like Sam Harris it’s because you haven’t really read what he has to say and have been going by what critics say about him, or you find what he has to say uncomfortable.  He is critical of the left, even though he himself is clearly a liberal.  Like me, he is against bad ideas.  And he is very good at reasoning what is a good idea and a bad idea.  In this era of identity politics it seems like there should only be us and them and Sam Harris is trying to find common ground.  Trying to promote reasoned discourse.  I connect with him for this reason, and I connect with him because he is scientifically minded, and I find him to be brilliant.  That doesn’t mean that I always agree with him.  I’ve come to a place in my life where I feel sure enough of my intelligence that I can even disagree with someone I find profoundly brilliant.  I’ll tell you this much though, if you are a liberal, you do yourself a disservice if you’ve written him off.  Whether you end up agreeing or disagreeing, if you want to be liberal and progressive, truly try to take in what he is saying and follow his logic, it will at the very least lead to some quality introspection.  Proving him wrong through reasoned arguments will make you richer than dismissing him on an emotional level.

The main reason for this post is that I was listening to his podcast called Waking Up With Sam Harris, and there was a segment that was so wonderfully said that I had to transcribe it and share it.  I know myself, my wife, and many that I know have been feeling this sense of complete disbelief at Trump’s win.  Not that Republican’s won, but Trump in particular.  It’s so obvious to many of us what a complete liar and con man he is, and he’s not even a good one.  It makes 100% sense why many people would vote for almost any other Republican candidate, but in many ways Trump still remains a mystery to many.  We can read story after story about why Trump won, but in the end, there is still this sense that many other politicians could have also had this appeal.  Anyway, Sam Harris here simply breaks it down perfectly and provided structure to my disbelief in all this, and why I find Trump as such a dangerous person to be president of this country and why I worry about our future and wonder if we, as a nation, can head in the right direction once again.  So without more of my rambling I wanted to share these words with you from episode #64: Ask Me Anything 6.

“There is a difference between truth and lies.  There is a difference between real news and fake news.  There is a difference between actual conspiracies and imagined ones.  And we cannot afford to have 100’s of millions of people, in our own society, on the wrong side of those epistemological chasms.  And we certainly can’t afford to have members of our own government on the wrong side of it.  As I’ve said many times before, all we have is conversation…you have conversation and violence.  That’s how we can influence one another.  When things really matter and words are insufficient, people show up with guns. That’s the way things are. So we have to create the conditions where conversations work.  And now we’re living in an environment where words have become totally ineffectual.  This is what has been so harmful about Trump’s candidacy and his first few weeks as president.  The degree to which the man lies, and the degree to which his supporters do not care, that is one of the most dangerous things to happen in my lifetime, politically.  There simply has to be a consequence for lying on this level.  And the retort from a Trump fan is “Well all politicians lie.” No.  All politicians don’t lie like this.  What we are witnessing with Trump and the people around him is something quite new.  Even if I grant that all politicians lie a lot.  I don’t know if I should grant that.  All politicians lie sometimes, say…but…even in their lying they have to endorse the norm of truth telling.  That’s what it means to lie successfully in politics (in a former age of the Earth).  You can’t obviously be lying.  You can’t be repudiating the very norm of honest communication.  But what Trump has done, and the people around him get caught in the same vortex, it’s almost like a giddy nihilism in politics, you just say whatever you want.  And it doesn’t matter if it’s true.  “Just try to stop me”, is the attitude.  It’s unbelievable.

Finding ways to span this chasm between people, finding ways where we can reliably influence one another, through conversation, based on shared norms of argumentation and self-criticism, that is the operating systems we need.  That is the only thing that stands between us and chaos.  And there are the people who are trying to build that, and there are the people who are trying to take it down.  Now one of those people is people is president. And I really don’t think this is too strong.  Trump is, by all appearances, consciously destroying the fabric of civil conversation, and his supporters really don’t seem to care.  I’m sure those of you support him will think I’m just winging now in the spirit of partisanship.  That I’m a democrat, or that I’m a liberal, but that’s just not the case.  Most normal Republican candidates, who I might dislike for a variety of reasons like Marco Rubio, or Jeb Bush, or even a quasi-theocrat like Ted Cruz, would still function within the normal channels of attempting a fact based conversation about the world. Their lies would be normal lies, and when caught there would be a penalty to pay.  They would lose face.  Trump has no face to lose.  This is an epistemological pot latch.” (Sam Harris then describes what a pot latch is: a Native American practice of burning up your prized possessions as a way of showing how wealthy you are).  “This is a pot latch of civil discourse.  Every time Trump speaks he’s saying, “I don’t have to make sense.  I’m too powerful to even have to make sense.”  That is his message.  And half the country, or nearly half, seems to love it.  So when he’s caught in a lie, he has no face to lose.  Trump is chaos.  And one of the measures of how bad he seems to me is that I don’t even care about the theocrats he has brought to power with him, and there are many of them.  He has brought in Christian fundamentalists to a degree that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago, and 10 years ago I was spending a lot of time worrying about the rise of the Christian right in this country.  Well it has risen under Trump, but honestly it seems like the least of our problems at this moment.  And it’s amazing for me to say that given what it means and what it might mean to have people like Pence and Jeff Sessions and the other Christian fundamentalists in his orbit, empowered in this way. ”

Resist my friends.