Category Archives: Current Events

Honest Dialogue Needed on Social Media

In my last post, I issued a plea for civil discourse. This post is something of a possible explanation for its rarity on social media couple with a further plea. Most people in the US seem to have chosen sides, picked a team. More than that, they seem to have made their chosen team a large part of their identity—who they take themselves to be. If they see someone post negative things about their candidate, they react against that person. If they repeatedly see that person posting negative things about their candidate (and perhaps positive things about the other candidate), they see the other person as attacking who they are. Or as completely fooled. This is, of course, polarization.

Here’s the thing: in reality, someone who posts only positive things about a candidate and nothing negative, is—at least in the US over the last several decades—not doing what is necessary to be rightly seen as posting truth. If what you believe to be true about the current candidates for president (and thus post on social media) is all one-sided, you’re almost certainly wrong. The duopoly candidates are all bad and have been for years. The truth is complex. Trump has had some good policies and done some good, but he’s also done some things badly and caused problems. The same would be true of a Biden presidency (judging from his history).

I agree that one of the candidates is better than the other. And I voted for that candidate. Honestly, I’ve voted in all or most national elections I’ve been eligible to vote in. I’ve always gotten a kick out of it. I did again this time, but I felt dirty in a way I never have before when voting. (Which is at least partly explained by having voted for third party candidates, skipped votes for some positions, writing in candidates, and never before voting for a whole party line.)

So what can be done? Here’s the plea: post honestly and recognize that if all your posts are pro-Candidate A and against Candidate B, you are not likely posting honestly. Civil discourse requires that interlocutors trust each other to speak honestly. If people see your posts as all one sided, they will rightly conclude that you are not being an honest interlocutor. There are at least 2 possible bad outcomes from that: your social media will become more of a bubble as people for the other candidate unfriend you or you’ll get into unnecessarily heated debates with people seeking to prove you wrong, no matter how futile that might be.

By contrast, if you are willing to see—and show that you see—the faults of the candidate you prefer (even if you think they are great!), you can invite and sustain honest dialogue with others. In all likelihood, you will discover that you have things in common with them even if you disagree about the candidates. The fact is we are all multi-faceted and not well represented by any single label. When we hide behind superficial identities or labels—or force others behind them—we fail to learn who our interlocutors really are. When we do that, we miss out on all there is to discover and make it more likely that we stagnate instead of growing. (For more on this, see Irshad Manji’s Don’t Label Me-CE*.)

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An Appeal for Civil Discourse

Humans were genetically inclined to be intolerant of difference.  They could overcome the inclination, but it was a reality of the Human conflict that they often did not.”  —Octavia Butler

I’ve been binge reading Octavia Butler’s fantastic fiction.  I can’t recommend it highly enough—its been a long time since I’ve so enjoyed an author’s work.  The above is from her Xenogenisis Trilogy-CE* (Dawn, Adulthood Rights, and Amago) in which she presents a post-apocalyptic earth, where we find humans, alien Oankali, and human-Oankali hybrids.  The Oankali saved the humans that remain—absent Oankali intervention, there would be no humans at all.  That Oankali did not do this solely out of altruistic concern, but also so that they would have humans as genetic “trading partners.”  The Oankali are a repeatedly and intentionally evolving species—they evolve by mixing their DNA with that of other species.  Humans aren’t the first and won’t be the last.  Some in the tale appear unable to grasp the incredible benefit the Oankali offer and become “resisters” seeking to maintain their biological humanity at all costs.  They fear their species being lost completely.  Indeed, the Oankali have (reversibly) altered humans to prevent non-hybrid procreation because they see a fatal destructive flaw in human biology—so destructive that they believe that absent intervention, the human race will self-destruct, just as it almost did before they arrived.  The Oankali, though, offer what amounts to significantly improved and lengthened individual life for the remaining humans and their descendants, though not, admittedly, as biological humans.  

Fear of the new and different is natural.  Such fear can, of course, be life-preserving.  It can’t though, be one’s only guide.  Fortunately, fear never dominates everyone.  Perhaps not even most.  There are humans in Butler’s tale that live in peace with the Oankali with little fear.  Most Christians don’t fear Muslims, most Americans don’t fear people in China or Russia, and most rural folks don’t fear city dwellers—or vice versa (for each pairing).  Importantly, most democrats don’t fear republicans and most republicans don’t fear democrats.  But we can all be better off if we increase understanding across the partitions that divide us.

If we do not at least try to better understand those we disagree with, the social and political landscape will only get worse.  The last century and a half has been humanity’s most prosperous.  The vast improvements to human life owe much to greater freedom to trade with those foreign to us, geographically and culturally.  That trade was partly preceded by, included, and followed by, discourse.  Absent discourse, we separate from others, living in isolated pockets (or “bubbles”) with others like us.  That is a recipe for stagnation—a New Dark Age where there is little dialogue between individuals across party lines, political borders, religions, and cultures.  And with that, less trade and progress.  We need more discourse that crosses all of those lines—and that will only happen with civility.  Civil discourse may not be the engine of change, but it’s certainly a prerequisite thereof.  Let’s have at it.  Tell me why I’m wrong.  Don’t tell me “because the so-and-so’s are beyond the pale;” tell me what we can do that would improve things other than engage in civil discourse that improves understanding.  Don’t tell me I’m a so-and-so; tell me why I’m wrong about civil discourse, or what is needed for progress, or why we don’t need progress, or why we’re somehow better off without cross-border trade (geographically, culturally, religiously, politically). 

In addition to leaving the comments open here—my first time doing so on RCL—I note a great new national attempt to improve understanding through civil discourse by the Braver Angels organization.  For the last few years, Braver Angels (formerly Better Angels) has been putting “blues” and “reds” in dialogue with each other to great affect.  They continue to do so, but have a new project meant to address the particular situation we now face.  When the 2020 election is over, many of your friends, neighbors, coworkers, and relatives are going to be upset.  Braver Angels hopes we can get reconciliation across the partisan divisions that have become so much less civil.  They seek to increase civil discourse by encouraging both sides to reach out to each other to discuss how we should all treat one other.  This can help us better understand each other—even those we vehemently disagree with.  I’d encourage you to take seriously the Braver Angel’s “With Malice Toward None” Pledge and, their letter rejecting election related violence. Sign both now.

*Thanks to Christy Horpedahl for helping me make this a better post than it otherwise would have been.

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Schools, Teachers, Parents, and a Bad Assumption

In my last post, I discussed the problems surrounding opening schools and, importantly, how we discuss them. In this post, I want to raise an issue about schooling more generally that is rarely discussed at all. I want to show how our current system encourages a false belief about parents and teachers that has pernicious results.

I begin by noting that my wife is a public school teacher and, given how Georgia is handling the pandemic, I have a clear preference for her to not teach in her school building. I also have a school age child who was, until a month ago, in a private school. The administration of that school is, I think, approaching the situation far better than most, but we still worry about both health and pedagogical risks. Thinking about both returning (or not) to school has me once again wondering about fundamental social problems—especially regarding schooling and parenting.

I think most of us are pretty bad at parenting. (Philip Larkin understood this well, but I should be clear that I think there are a huge variety of ways that we are bad at it—some are overbearing and some are entirely too loose, for opposing examples.) Worries about increased child abuse with school closures are therefore not at all surprising. On the other hand, I also think most K-12 schools are pretty bad at educating. Having served on committees for two charter schools and volunteered and watched at my son’s schools, I’ve been amazed at how unwilling school administrators can be to make use of evidence about best educational practices. (This is sometimes true even when they clearly know the evidence—in such cases, they tend to point out that they are constrained by budgets, politics, etc.) Schools don’t, in my view, offer enough music or art or time to relax, run, and breath outside. They also tend to start too early in the morning, foolishly insist children sit still and at desks, force students to maintain logs of reading, and even penalize students that read unassigned books at the wrong time. Worries about children being stifled and losing their innate curiosity because of school rules are therefore also not surprising.

Many parents are aware of problems with their children’s’ schools. Some even work to correct them. Most, though, seem to “mind their own business”—as if the education of their children were not their business. Indeed, many parents seem to think that because schools are provided and mandatory, they are themselves absolved of the responsibility for educating their children. (As schools feed and medically nurse children, parents may feel absolved of even more responsibility.) Even the best of parents tend to assume their children are being well taken care of at school. Unfortunately, too many parents assume their children are the school’s responsibility during the day. Interestingly, the pandemic helped some see that their school was not working for them. (See this interesting NY Times piece.)

I do not think any of this is surprising or unexplainable. We live in a society wherein government has encouraged parental abdication of educational responsibilities. Parents often rightly feel that they cannot opt out of government run schools. Where they can, they usually are constrained to choose either the local government school or a nearby private school. Only in some locales is there a simple and straightforward process through which you can legally educate your own child. (The option is, I think, available everywhere in the US, but with more or less red tape involved.) Encouraged is a belief that I suspect drives the problems that beset schools: that parenting and teaching are necessarily distinct and must be kept separate.

Our system of K-12 education relies on the idea that parents are not teachers. Indeed, some homeschooling parents have been condemned for thinking they could teach their own children. Parents, on this view, are supposed to feed, clothe, love, and maybe socialize children. Schools, on the other hand, provide teachers to educate children, too often including moral education (and might also provide food and healthcare for the children). And schools—or the administrators thereof (or, worse, politicians)—decide where a child will learn and how. A parent that tries to send her child to a better public school than the one closest may face jail time—because the school system decides, not the parent. (See this and this.) Parents, after all, don’t know about education.

Two problems emerge when people believe parenting and teaching are necessarily distinct. The first, I’ve discussed above: schools operate with a variety of problems and parents don’t work to change them or do so but face insurmountable difficulties in the attempt. When they don’t try, it is likely at least partly because thinking that parents aren’t teachers makes parents think teachers have an authority they do not. And, of course, they assume teachers run schools. The second problem is a corollary: because parents are led to believe schools and teachers have an authority they do not themselves possess, parents don’t think they need be active participants in their children’s education. In short, parents take less responsibility for raising their children, leaving more and more to schools. What society gets, too often, is school graduates who learn to do as they are told, conforming to societal requirements. If parents were more active, we’d get more diversity in how children are educated, resulting in many benefits (though admittedly also costs in terms of equity). I think we are seeing some of this already and hope to see more. We’d get more people contributing in more and more varied ways to society, creating more and more varied benefits for all.

In short, the all too common belief that parents and teachers are necessarily distinct lets parents off the hook for too much and grants schools too much leeway. Challenging that belief would encourage parents to challenge their children’s schools, thereby either improving the schools or having the schools lose students to other alternatives.

The pandemic has forced us to re-evaluate many things. Hopefully, one positive outcome will be a healthier view of the relationship between parenting and education–one that emphasizes parental responsibility and acknowledges the limits of career educators (especially those in what might be called “educational factories”). One might even hope that this would help make parents better at parenting.

(Conversations with my wife and with Lauren Hall, JP Messina, and Kevin Currie-Knight inspired, and helped me with, this post.)

On School Openings

Back in April, I “predicted” we’d see 150 to 200 thousand deaths from COVID-19 in the US.  As we are now in that range, I’m hoping I was right and we don’t go past the 200,000, but of course this is so far outside my expertise that my guess means little.  But here we are and school openings approach.  Some seem deadly afraid of school openings and some seem deadly afraid of schools not opening. (I’m primarily thinking here about K-12, but much of what I say applies to colleges as well—and of course, high school juniors and seniors are more like college freshman than kindergarteners in terms of COVID-19 transmission and symptoms.)

Those conflicting views often accompany two others: that people favoring school openings foolishly think young children are immune to the effects of COVID-19 (or otherwise don’t understand the risks of reopening) and that people opposing school openings don’t care about education (or otherwise overestimate the risks of reopening).  

Meanwhile, I don’t believe any thinking person really thinks any children are immune to COVID-19, despite claims coming from the White House.  Of course, young children do seem to get badly sick from the virus much less than anyone expected back in March.  And there is no reason to believe that those worried about sending kids into closed buildings with hundreds of others don’t care about education.

My biggest issue with discussions about this—and many things—is that people seem unable or unwilling to keep the pros and cons in mind at the same time.  But schools are, by and large, run by groups of people that have to be able to do just that in order to make rational decisions about whether to open, close, reopen, re-close schools—sometimes despite political pressures by governing bodies, unions, parental organizations, and more.

This has to be a hugely difficult question and cannot be made without considering both the costs and the benefits.  At a minimum that includes the following assumptions (yes, I think both of these are true):

-if schools are open, kids and teachers are going to get sick (plexiglass around the kids, masks all day, etc, is not going to stop it). They will also bring the disease to their families, friends, and neighbors.  We’re likely to pass 200k deaths more quickly (and with more children) than we would if schools stay closed.

-if schools are closed, children of working class parents will suffer long term consequences.  Their parents can’t stay home with them and help them with their schoolwork.  Middle class and wealthier parents will hire tutors or join “educational pods” where parents pool resources to monitor children doing school work, but not those from poorer backgrounds.  (And as others have noted, there will be more cases of suicide and spousal and child abuse.)

There are further economic issues that would follow either decision as well, but I’ll not delve into those here.  What I want to urge now is simply (a) not demonizing those you disagree with about this and (b) bearing in mind both the pros and cons if you have decision making capacity here.  

I keep myself limited to those two points as I really don’t know what the best route is for any school (and, of course, different schools in different locales with different population densities and with different student bodies, will be different).  I suspect a lot of thought will be going into it, and not just from current school administrators and school boards.  (And parents—the topic of a future post.)

Hopefully, new ideas will emerge that actually bring new approaches and new institutions that do better for children than schools now do.  Smaller schools with more parental decision making, more variety of teaching techniques, and yes, better use of technology to not merely monitor children and allow for physically distanced communication, but also to spark curiosity.  I can’t predict the innovations; I remain optimistic that they will come and that innovators will consider the many concerns as they seek to appeal to a wide customer base.

This pandemic is going to have long term effects.  We are likely to see more work at home across the board and less use of commercial office space and that may bring new opportunities for housing, lower rents in some areas, and reductions of city populations.  Better systems of education responding to these changes and the above challenges would be a wonderful outcome of a bad situation.

(Thanks to Ronit Elk for the impetus to write this and to  JP Messina for helpful suggestions and comments.)

Social Media Censorship: Four Lessons from the Recent Suppression of Covid-19 ‘Disinformation’

On July 27th 2020, a group of physicians calling themselves “Frontline Doctors” posted a video to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. The video displays licensed medical doctors in front of a supreme court building (1) advocating the reopening of schools, (2) suggesting that there are public health costs of lockdowns (e.g., excess suicides, cases of depression, domestic violence, and substance abuse) and (3) extolling the virtues of zinc and hydroxychloroquine (a drug whose robust supply is essential for managing lupus and other ailments) in treating and preventing COVID-19 infections. By the morning of July 28th, the video had roughly 14 million views and had been removed from every mainstream platform that had initially hosted it for violating their coronavirus misinformation policies. On the same morning, I became curious and watched the video elsewhere. It was not hard to find.

Lesson one: Despite claims that private social media companies regularly violate persons’ free speech rights, actions by private companies to censor content are much less worrying than similar actions by state agents. This is partially because it’s relatively easy to access content that private parties take down. Less so when the state does it.

On July 29th, the New York Times’ David Leonhardt ran a “morning briefing” indicating that the video had been removed for suggesting that hydroxychloroquine was an effective cure and that masks were unnecessary. The remark on masks was a mere snippet of the much broader message. “You don’t need a mask,” Stella Immanuel said, “there’s a cure.”  She herself admits to wearing a surgical mask, so presumably she does not mean that there is no reason to wear a mask in the absence of the drug’s widespread deployment. Other doctors who spoke at the event clearly advocate social distancing and mask-wearing practices.

But leaving this claim aside, there is at least some truth in the main of what these doctors were saying. The segment lasted over 45 minutes, only a small portion of which contained anything about masks and only some of which concerned hydroxychloroquine . Many of the group’s claims about the safety of reopening schools and the hidden public health costs of lockdowns are largely uncontroversial. Others, e.g., that Sweden’s response represents an alternative approach to locking down are likewise true, even if the results of Sweden’s alternative approach have been mixed. Labeling the entire segment false or misleading thus does disservice to what’s true in it.

Lesson two: John Stuart Mill was right that censored content that is false often contains important half-truths and that this matters when considering whether to suppress it.

In the same piece, Leonhardt claimed that confusion induced by social media platforms’ failure to aggressively censor content is among the most noteworthy causes of the United States’ comparatively bad coronavirus outcomes. (Leonhardt also cited Sinclair’s media network, which broadcasts content downplaying the risks of the virus.) Let’s leave aside the fact that the causal explanation of the U.S.’s performance relative to its peers is a matter of some complexity and focus instead on something striking about the causal claim he in fact makes: that social media companies’ lack of censorship deserves a large portion of the blame for these outcomes.

But notice that reporters like Leonhardt at mainstream media outlets have likely done more than any social media platform to spread this particular video’s message. Had the message merely remained on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook (as so much content does) I would not have watched it. The same is surely true for countless others. But because the video’s content, which might have otherwise maintained a kind of cult viewership, was covered by all of the major news outlets, lots of people sought it out. This is the Streisand Effect in action: very often, attempts to suppress information lead to its viral spread. This matters because there are in effect two possibilities: either the ineptly suppressed content is dangerous or it isn’t. If it is genuinely dangerous, then Leonhardt (and others like him) have acted irresponsibly by their own lights by drawing much more attention to it. If the content of the video is not genuinely dangerous, on the other hand, then the main justification for removing the content in the first place is implausible.

Now, you might say the way that mainstream outlets spread the speech was not dangerous insofar as it was framed explicitly as containing disinformation. The problem is twofold. First,  the current media climate is so polarized right now that even once reputable outlets like the New York Times are deemed untrustworthy by a significant subset of the population. (Some go so far as to claim that these outlets are anti-reliable.) When such outlets declare something to be disinformation, then, there is real reason to worry that people skeptical of the outlet will be more favorably disposed to the bad speech than they’d otherwise have been. Second, some research has uncovered an Illusory Truth Effect, according to which people are more likely to believe things that they hear constantly repeated, even if listeners know the repeated claim is false.

Lesson Three: If there’s dangerous content out there, it’s often better to ignore it than draw increased attention to it. Paradoxically, censoring content is among the best ways of promoting it. Given the newsworthiness of social media censorship, were these companies to do what Leonhardt wants them to do and censor content more often, the effect might well be that the allegedly dangerous content reaches a wider audience than it otherwise would.

None of this is to deny that some of what these doctors said sounds crazy. (Though, notably, for some of them, their professional views on the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine are among their most innocuous.) Still, it’s important not to pretend that the coronavirus treatment science is settled—there is still much that we don’t know, and the mainstream medical researchers at least deem the hypothesis that hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment worthy of study in high profile scientific outlets. Until these questions are settled, it’s important for professionals, even fringe professionals, to make their arguments without being dismissed out of hand and derided. Importantly, the arguments regarding hydroxychloroquine offered by the so-called “Frontline Doctors” are largely anecdotal, rely on small sample sizes (n=350), and are afflicted with other problems evident to anyone remotely well-versed in critical thinking. Were these arguments to become widely accepted, it would be important to recognize their flaws and to draw public attention to them. But to think that the conclusions of such arguments are beyond the pale—especially in the context of the broader pandemic, during which those insisting on proper data collection techniques have been derided for not acting quickly enough—is, frankly, not credible. Thus even if these arguments should be discredited and derided, it’s important to take care not to similarly deride and discredit those who argue for similar conclusions from more solid grounds.

Lesson four: If you must draw attention to a bad argument that someone makes on some important issue, focus on the argument’s substance, rather than discrediting what speakers say by taking small claims they make out of context. Doing so is a small first step toward establishing credibility with those who disagree with you. Again, there is no first amendment issue here, but even the most fastidious protection of our rights to speak against government interference is insufficient for ensuring a healthy atmosphere for discourse.

The Quadruple Threat to America Today

America faces a quadruple threat. The four threats are related in various ways, too often mutually supporting. I am not including COVID-19, though it could easily be considered a 5th threat. My reasons for doing this are: (1) it’s a threat everywhere, in no way distinctive of American life; indeed, it would be best considered a global natural disaster; (2) it is related to the threats I do discuss; indeed, like all natural disasters, it’s impact is determined by our responses—and the other threats make bad responses more likely. I offer these for consideration as I think they must all be addressed if liberalism is to survive.

The first threat is straightforward. We might call it xenophobia or extreme in-group bias. It manifests in multiple ways, especially racism, sexism, anti-immigrant biases, and anti-semitism. This may seem to be largely confined to those on the so-called “right,” but it applies to many on the left as well. On the left, one need only think of Bernie Sanders’ anti-immigrant views or Joe Biden’s recent pro-American economic policy; on the right one need only think of talk of the “Wuhan flu” or “China flu” instead of “COVID-19”—both play on the insider/outsider distinction to blame someone else for our problems (or at least prevent outsiders from becoming insiders). Maliciously shifting the blame provides cover for those who seek to refuse to take action to limit the harm. Taking responsibility (not necessarily blame) means working to fix the problem. Many of our governments—and many individuals—refuse to do so. This, of course, is at least part of why the number of COVID cases and deaths in the US is on the rise. Like all natural disasters, how we react to it determines the overall impact it has. Of course, the Black Lives Matter movement is currently the most straightforward evidence of in-group bias, in the form of racism, as protestors correctly point out how institutional racism, especially (but not only) by way of police actions, are extremely unjust and, indeed, a matter of life and death for many. This seems to be a concern primarily of “the left,” but with leading support from libertarians (defying the standard left/right dichotomy). For those interested in that, see Radley Balko’s and Chris Coyne and Abigail Hall’s books (CE*).

The second threat is the economy, as we fail to institute a reasonable response to the COVID-19 pandemic and as we face the repercussions of widespread use of collateralized loan obligations (see this Barron’s piece and this piece in The Atlantic), much as the 2008 recession was at least partly caused by widespread use of collateralized debt obligations. Regarding the latter, it is unfortunate in the extreme that the federal government failed to learn any lessons from the collapse of the housing market bubble or its past support for big banking and the latter’s issuing of bad debt (itself encouraged as the big banks correctly realized that even if the debts really went south, they would be bailed out by taxpayers—because in the US the one thing we like to socialize is big business’s losses). Unfortunately, we may see the same thing repeat. Indeed, it may be worse since there is more invested in CLOs than there was in CDOs and the CLOs largely include commercial debt—and the pandemic is hard on many commercial enterprises. Regarding the government response to the pandemic, we can only note what has been often noted—widespread, enforced, and complete shut-downs of multiple markets may or may not help reduce spread of the disease, but would only do so at the obvious cost of making it more difficult—and more expensive—for people to get necessities. While middle and upper class professionals are often able to work from home with no or little loss in pay, many—especially those in the restaurant and entertainment businesses—cannot. At the end of the day, shutting everything down to save lives is foolhardy as it will cost lives. If markets are all closed, we won’t have food and other necessities. Those who live paycheck to paycheck (and many more) won’t be able to pay rent, etc.

The third threat is authoritarianism, partially with a populist demagogue. We now have a president who is likely more of a demagogue than any president since Andrew Jackson. Of course, he was enabled by changes to the office and the workings of the federal government over the last several decades. The expansion of presidential powers under the past several presidents—Republican and Democrat alike—enabled what we have now. The populism is perhaps as dangerous as anything else—promising voters bread and circuses is always worrisome. Those voters are often not well informed about how government works or about science. Now, of course, we see both the populism and the authoritarianism emerging from the debased Republican Party. The populism is clear in the MAGA crowd’s following their leader in insisting on not wearing masks. The authoritarianism is perhaps worse, as witnessed in federal law enforcement agencies frightening behavior in Portland—with the threat that such behavior will go national. The use of ICE and The Border Patrol Tactical Unit deep within the US Border started months ago (see this in the NYTimes) but seems to be picking up steam—ostensibly because the federal government is so worried about graffiti on federal buildings that they are unwilling to leave such crimes to local authorities. (See Jake’s great piece, which also indicates why this is also about populism.) In reality, of course, this may be merely a piece of political theater, aimed at distracting voters and rallying the president’s base. As already indicated, though, this is not an issue for the current Republican party alone. Presidents Clinton and Obama also expanded their powers while in office. And even now, we see scary authoritarianism from the left, when local authorities claim to have knowledge about what is necessary to prevent further spread of COVID-19 and claim that such knowledge justifies them forcing people to live under house arrest (see this piece about a couple in Kentucky) for refusing to sign a paper saying they would not self-quarantine (whether or not they would self-quarantine). Neither left nor right is blameless and neither seems to recognize that their actions are as scary (at least to their opponents) as those of the other side are (at least to them). Those on “the right” seem to think the Feds behavior in Portland is worthwhile because local authorities aren’t stopping looters. They seem to forget the value of federalism and the freedom of individuals that helps ensure (though they remember it clearly when it serves their interests). Those on “the left” seem to think the Kentucky authorities are doing the work needed given public health concerns. They seem to work with a reified sense of “the public” and forget the freedom of individuals that threatens (though they remember it clearly enough when it serves their interests).

The fourth threat is related to my last post. Its a dangerous lack of commitment to there being anything that is objectively true and to seeking such. Its not just our president that seems to lack any commitment to truth. Our culture is riddled with people who claim their beliefs form “their truth” which may be different from “your truth” or “my truth” but that must be treated as if of equal value. Never mind that there really are experts out there in all sorts of areas. Some believe their views of morality are as valuable as those of academics who spend their lives working out intricate details of moral theories and defending those theories against all manner of objection—though they themselves never subject their own views to criticism. (Why should they, when their view is “true to them,” whatever that means?) No wonder people now consider their views about disease transmission (and curing) as valuable as the CDC’s or Dr. Fauci’s. Or who consider their view of other countries as valuable as people who have actually travelled to or lived in those countries. Or who think their views of politics and economics as valuable as academic political scientists and economists who have been studying these things for decades? Admittedly, insisting that there is objective truth might sometimes sound dogmatic to those who feel insulted when faced with any intellectual opposition—as if insisting that a proposition is true entails rejecting any objection or evidence to the contrary, which it decidedly does not. Giving any belief its due can be considerably difficult. As Schumpter said, “To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian.” We must remain open to the possibility that we are mistaken even when we are convinced we are not—that is what genuine commitment to truth and truth seeking entails.

I’ll end by making some of the connections between the threats explicit: 

-Its easier to favor economic policies that favor the rich (2) when one thinks everyone else is “other” (1). Its easier to favor authoritarian actions (3) when one believes they are only used against people vary unlike oneself (1). Its easier to deny there is any objective truth (4) when one is constantly told those unlike oneself have different values and beliefs (1)

-Its easier to hate outsiders (1) when one mistakenly (4) think they threaten one’s own livelihood and that of those one cares about (2). It is likely easier to endorse authoritarian policies (3) if one thinks they are necessary to maintain economic stability or growth (2). (Less related to this discussion: it is apparently easier to deny there is any form of objectivity (4) if one believes that the only think that matters is subjective preferences (2).)

-Its easier to distrust or hate others (1) or to favor an economic policy (2) when blinded by an authoritarian repeatedly making false statements about them and grandstanding (3 & 4). Its easier, in general, to doubt there is any objectivity (4) when both that same authoritarian (3) and many others—including, if we are honest, many leftist college professors—encourage those doubts.

-Its easier to hate outsiders (1) when one refuses to learn about them (4). Its easier to favor an economic policy (2) when one refuses to consider objections to it (4). Its easier to favor forcing people to live as one thinks they should (3) without doing the hard work of listening to them (4).

I hope its clear we need a response to these threats. Liberalism—and the great American experiment—depend on it.

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Undemocratic Policing in Portland

Federal law enforcement officers in various agencies in the Department of Homeland Security have been deployed to police protestors in Portland, OR. This development in the protests against police, and the police responses to them, highlight two different kinds of problems: those that come from the decentralization of local agencies and those that come from the centralization of federal agencies.

The federal officers, dressed in camouflage, have been detaining people in unmarked minivans. At least some of them are not wearing badges that identity their agency. The badges other officers are wearing are small and difficult to read, especially when a group of officers grab you and toss you into a van before speeding off. Federal agents are also using chemical irritants to disperse protests. In at least one incident, they attacked two people who appear to be medics providing care to someone laying on a sidewalk. It is hard to discern any legitimate police goal that was achieved from shoving them to the ground and threatening to strike them with batons. In another particularly awful incident, a protestor is shot in the face with an “impact” or “non-lethal” munition. In yet another, federal police repeatedly strike a protestor, who seemingly posing no threat, with a baton and then spray teargas into his face.

When asked what justifies the use of federal forces in Portland, the DHS has pointed to destruction of federal property. The list includes a broken window and many instances of graffiti, which is of course a far cry from their claim that the city has been “under siege for 47 straight days by a violent mob.” Acting Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli complains that Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler is “holding back” local law enforcement by not letting them “certain nonlethal tactics.” Meanwhile, the Portland police commissioner has said the federal officers should go home and that their presence is escalating the situation.

This is an unusual situation. Federal force is typically used to respond to protests only when local officials request it. The governor has called this political theatre. It looks worse than that to me. It looks more like the Trump administration probably violating the law to punish political enemies and to rile up his base. The administration has threatened to use similar tactics in other cities. And of course, since they are cities, they are Trump’s political enemies.

The situation demonstrates the importance of clearly marked law enforcement officers. One of the problems with “secret police” is the lack of accountability. If they violate your rights, who would you object to? Another is that it undermines one of the major justifications of a public police force, which is that a publicly accountable police force is supposed to give you reasons to comply and let the courts adjudicate the issue. But if you’re not sure who is tossing you into the back of a minivan, it is far from clear that you have a reason to comply. It is a different manifestation of the problem we see with no-knock SWAT raids in which people, fearing that their home is being invaded by criminals, use defensive force against unidentified officers. But this is probably not the main problem, which would remain even if the federal agents were more clearly identified.

The main problem is that the federal agents have little in the way of democratic authorization or other justification for their uses of force. The tactics to disperse protestors are clearly excessive. Further, the Trump administration is overriding the authority of local officials and police. The authority to deploy federal law enforcement to Portland apparently comes from regulations allowing CBP officers to operate with fewer constitutional restrictions in the “border zone” that extends 100 miles from the border. Though even that is unclear; the Trump administration has not explained the legal basis for these deployments. Like the Portland police commissioner, state and local officials have also requested that the DHS withdraw their officers.

A common complaint in criminal justice reforms circles is that the extreme decentralization of policing makes reform nearly impossible. With 18,000 police agencies, most reform efforts will need to occur independently all over the country. Another problem is that when officers are fired from one department, they often can find work at another nearby department. These are real problems, and they have contributed to the protests federal officers have been deployed to police.

But they are probably less significant than if the president was the head of a national police force in the way that the president is the head of the military. The Trump administration makes that clear. It’s true that local departments already have a less than stellar track record when it comes to policing protests. But police chiefs and commissioners don’t usually appear to be motivated to punish political opponents, in part because they’re not directly elected. And if they do punish political opponents, at least the voters in Portland or Chicago don’t have to worry about suburbanites who aren’t on the receiving end of the bad policing voting for a presidential candidate who promises to use the police to violate their civil liberties.

Another related problem is one of selection effects. People have long worried that eliminating residency requirements in local police departments will result in communities being policed by outsiders who lack local knowledge or sympathy with residents. When the agency doing the law enforcement is widely loathed, and staffed by people across the nation who simply accept that they are widely loathed, we can expect even less local knowledge and sympathy with residents. Using federal agents for local policing causes some of the same problems that having the military engage in domestic policing does.

These two problems undermine the democratic authorization of centralized police forces. Of course, there are few proponents of a national police force. If this is right, though, it informs normative questions about consolidating police forces. Elinor Ostrom researched this question and found that people are more satisfied with more local police power. Using federal police to respond to protests is probably illegitimate because it gives non-locals too much say over local issues. Similarly, a police agency that has a jurisdiction much larger than a city is likely to suffer the same problem. People who live in the city and are likely to be heavily policed, for example, probably have very different views about what good policing looks like than those who live in the suburbs and enter the city just to work.

Theorizing about justice in real political systems is a game of picking our problems. Decentralization surely leads to problems of its own, ones that have partially caused recent protests. But they also look less serious than ones we could expect if the Trump administration had more control over local policing.

About Dialogue

Many people believe civil discourse has deteriorated. I think civil discourse has deteriorated. In this post, I want to make a different point: that what we see today is not merely a deterioration of civil discourse, but a greater and more general loss of genuine dialogue.

Dialogue involves two or more parties.  In genuine dialogue, one party speaks and the other responds, in seriatum.  The second responds to the first and the first responds to the second, etc.  In each of these moves, when one responds to the other, they do not merely make statements—they make statements that directly respond to the last statementThis means, at a minimum, that each successive statement takes into account what was previously said and in some way builds upon it.  The “building” may be a moving of the discussion forward wherein new information is created or shared, or it may be an interrogation of earlier statements that is plausibly expected to lead to clarity such that further building is possible.  

Excluded in genuine dialogue is lying, making statements unrelated to previous contributions to the discussion, mere repetitions of previous contributions (unless used as part of an interrogation meant to allow further building), and tangential statements meant to change the topic.  (Changing the topic is permissible, but doing so means ending one conversation and starting another.)

My contention is simply that these moves that are excluded by genuine dialogue are an extensive part of contemporary conversation.  Putting the point differently, much of contemporary discussion is twaddle rather than genuine dialogue. (This is not an original point; it’s been made many times before throughout history; my favorite statement  about it is by Kierkegaard, in his The Present Age (CE*).)  If this is right, it’s hardly surprising that we have a paucity of civil discourse.  How can we expect civil discourse when people have lost the ability to engage in any real discourse?  When what passes for discourse is “you speak then I speak,” disliking what the faux interlocutor says will not result in honest interrogation or understanding, but hatred.

If you think I am being facetious, consider:

-Walking across a college campus, you might hear someone say “Was your summer fantastic?” Forget the response, what kind of question is this?  What if the person being asked merely had an OK summer?  

-You might here someone say “Its going to rain tomorrow because I looked at the forecast.”  Well…. no.

-Someone might ask a guest if they’d like a drink and receive this reply: “I’m going out to dinner after this.”  This likely should be prefaced with a “No,” but who can be sure?

None of that even touches the fact that some seem to have absolutely no commitment to telling the truth, the results of which is that genuine dialogue can’t progress.  We could, of course, simply look at the White House for examples, but more generally I admit to being flummoxed when faced when someone lies straight to my face—when I realize this is happening, I give up on genuine dialogue with that person.

If contemporary discussion is itself not genuine dialogue, it cannot be civil discourse.  If we care about civil discourse, then, we should work to encourage more genuine dialogue.  That is, we need to encourage people to listen to one another and actually respond rather than merely speak.  (This, by the way, is one reason many of us love university life: at a university, we frequently say “what do you mean by that?,” “can you explain?,” and even “how is that relevant to our discussion?”  We seek and promote genuine discussion all the time.)

CE*=RCL earns commissions if you buy from this link; commissions support this site.

Some Further Thoughts on Masks

Andrew J. Cohen argues that we are morally obligated to wear masks (technically, face- coverings) when we are in an enclosed indoor space with others, because doing so reduces the chances that we will harm others by transmitting Covid-19. See here. (In cases where a mask causes the wearer to be harmed, he or she is released from the obligation because that person has a duty not to harm him or herself.) He does not endorse a legal requirement to require masks indoors, because “a legal requirement should only be instituted if we have clear evidence that significant harm is likely to otherwise be imposed on non-consenting others” and Andrew doesn’t think there is that kind of evidence. This is because the harm is somewhat limited, and the others are likely consenting since they went to the places indoors voluntarily. In cases where the harm is likely to be high and the persons present indoors cannot easily leave—nursing homes, assisted living facilities, etc.—masks should be legally required, on his view. And, of course, businesses are free to require mask wearing, and customers should follow their decisions.

I don’t think Andrew’s reasoning that there shouldn’t be a legal requirement to wear masks indoors succeeds. The degree of harm to which one is subjected to indoors by those that don’t wear masks varies with circumstances such as age, the state of one’s immune system, the degree of exposure, how close the non-mask wearers are, the prevalence of the virus in your area, etc. Under some circumstances, the harm could be quite severe; under other conditions, minor (I will return to the point about the variability of harm below). Moreover, the voluntary assumption of risk claim doesn’t apply to nonconsenting third parties. E.g., suppose person A assumes the risk of getting ill by going into a store, gets the virus in the store from person B but A doesn’t know this, and later makes person C sick outside of the store. The voluntary assumption of risk has no application to C.

I think there are better grounds for opposing legal mandates of indoor mask wearing.

One size-fits-all versus local knowledge and variation

A non-mask wearing healthy 20-year old in a business full of other healthy 20-year-olds in a rural area where the virus has not produced any significant serious illness is likely not imposing significant risks of harm on others.[1] A not-so-healthy non-mask wearing person in a crowded urban environment with other not-too-healthy people could very well be imposing significant risks on others. A legal requirement to wear masks is going to be quite insensitive to these kinds of individual and local conditions as well as to individual’s knowledge of these conditions. This holds even if the requirements are state by state rather than federal, given variability within states. Hence a requirement to force mask wearing will violate individual rights in cases when not doing so is morally innocent. One might argue in response that rights violations are going to be worse if we don’t have a legal requirement to wear masks (assuming those who get sick from others negligently failing to wear masks in enclosed areas have their rights violated). However, there is the alternative of using moral persuasion, business prudence, and social pressure to maintain a norm of mask wearing when the risks of harming others are high–which leads me to my second point.

The Costs of Enforcement

Legislation or mandates require enforcement. If a mask mandate has criminal penalties or is enforced by the police this runs the serious risk that it will be enforced unfairly or perhaps brutally. In New York City summons and arrests for violating social distancing rules were given overwhelmingly to African American and Latinos. and there were a couple of very ugly incidents. See this and this.

Admittedly, it is possible that the summons and arrest statistics merely reflect the pattern of those who violated the rules, but given the history of New York City police (recall the now abandoned Stop and Frisk program) skepticism is warranted.

Coercive enforcement is lessened if it is assigned to the Health Department or something similar and applied to businesses (fines for failing to require masks) rather than individuals. However, unfair enforcement is still likely given limited resources of these departments.

Philosophy professors (even those who are retired professors, like me) are fond of imagining that someone asks what appears to be stupid or silly questions, so here goes: what’s wrong with unfair and coercive legal enforcement? After all, won’t the alternative of moral pressure, business prudence, and social pressure also be unfair to some—namely those who are pressured to wear masks but are not imposing serious risks upon others or who get ill because some who should have worn masks won’t? Andrew’s last line of his post provides the right response: “we have too many” laws. And that is a polite understatement. We are drowning in a sea of overcriminalization. Jason Brennan and Chris Surprenant in Injustice for All: How Broken Financial Incentives Corrupted and Can Fix the Criminal Justice System estimate that something like 90% of Americans are criminals in that at some point in their life have committed a felony! Even if that figure is somewhat high, it’s astonishing. No one even knows just how many criminal laws there are. I don’t know of studies that estimate how many civil laws there are, but it’s likely also to be astonishingly high. The bottom line is that whatever problems exist in commercial and civil society regarding enforcement of norms regarding mask wearing, better that we deal with those problems rather than adding another task to our already overburdened, coercive, and unfair system.  This is especially so during this difficult time when there is there is resentment and protest over shutdowns, and police brutality and racism.

Thanks to Tom W. Bell, Andrew J. Cohen, Mark LeBar, and Ilya Somin for helping me think through these issue. Thanks to Jason Brennan for directing me to studies on the way social distancing rules were enforced in NY.


[1] Though it may matter what kind of business. A bar, for example, is a far riskier environment than other retail establishments.

Proportional policing and criminal patrol

One of the (many) moral problems of policing in the US is that law enforcement strategies often fail a proportionality requirement. The principle of proportionality is often invoked in discussions of the morality of the use of force, whether it is force used to achieve military or police goals, or for individual self-defense. It is impermissible to use force that causes significantly more harm than the benefit caused by achieving one’s goal. Police are not permitted to shoot fleeing robbery suspects, for example. Proportionality also informs distributional concerns. Justice requires not just that we minimize errors in criminal trials, but that we achieve a particular distribution of errors. We tend to accept an increase in false findings of innocence as a cost of reducing false findings of guilt. A legal system that imposes costs on the innocent too frequently in the course of punishing the guilty will be disproportionate because the harm required to punish the guilty would be too great. Here I’ll argue that proportionality constrains not just use of force policies, but also the selection of strategies for enforcing law.

I’ve argued elsewhere that a proportionality principle constrains the tactics police officers are permitted to use when responding to protests and demonstrations. But there are some police strategies that fail a proportionality requirement even if officers rarely resort to physical force. Most strategies that rely on “filtering” are unlikely to meet the requirement.

Consider the stop and frisk strategy employed by the NYPD during the 2000s and early 2010s. This practice became intensely controversial because a majority of the New Yorkers stopped, questioned, and frisked where Black or Hispanic. At the time, Mayor Bloomberg insisted that officers stopped people based on their behavior, not their appearance. At the peak of stop and frisk, the NYPD averaged around 1200 stops per day which resulted in around 70 arrests, and only 2 on illegal gun possession charges. In other words, with a success rate of around 6 percent, the NYPD did not appear to have a great sense of which behaviors indicated criminal activity. Even putting aside the threat of force required in each stop, police stops are not trivial incursions into a person’s life. Around 94 percent of the people the NYPD stopped in a day who had to bear those costs were innocent. This means that the strategy, even granting that it reduced crime and successfully enforced legitimate laws (both of which are controversial), has a significant number of false “findings of guilt.” Given the huge number of innocent people stopped as part of the strategy, it is not proportional.

Similarly, consider the use of traffic stops for criminal law enforcement. The LAPD, like most police departments, uses traffic stops to find illegal guns and drugs. Even if this is a common way for officers to make arrests and remove illegal guns from the streets, it is unlikely that one can make accurate judgements about who is breaking the law simply by looking at the exterior of one’s vehicle. This leads to officers pulling motorists over for violating traffic laws just to examine the driver and the inside of the vehicle. There are serious concerns about racist police activity in this context too. Black drivers are less likely to be pulled over at night when the driver’s race is “masked.” Even if there weren’t concerns about racist enforcement, however, the concern about proportionality remains. The ultimate reason for the traffic stop is to investigate criminal activity, but most of the people stopped are innocent. Filtering strategies that rely on stopping large numbers of people, most of whom are innocent, to find a small number of guilty people, fail a proportionality requirement.

Evaluating these strategies in terms of proportionality is useful because it lets us avoid arguing about the presumption of innocence. You might think that these strategies undermine the presumption of innocence (I do), but that objection is less useful against strategies that rely on pretextual stops. Traffic laws, or anti-loitering laws, are tools for enabling more invasive police interactions. The goal is rarely to enforce the law that an officer witnesses one violating, but rather to look for criminal activity.

If this is right, then proportionality is also a tool for evaluating law enforcement strategies. This is useful because determining the just administration of law is separate from the question of which laws are just. Though the former has gotten less attention, it is still important. This kind of argument about proportionality plays a role in some of the work on policing I’m doing now.