How Are We Going To Deal With Racists?

By Graham Peterson

Donald Sterling is a racist.  The question we have to ask ourselves is: how are we going to deal with racists?  If we want to scare the racism out of people, then making a public spectacle of them and demanding that their business associates ruin them is the right track — and exhilarating to boot!

But I think that on some honest reflection, you will agree that scaring people isn’t a very effective way to change their beliefs.

It is however a great way to make sure racists don’t subject their beliefs to argumentative scrutiny — and to make sure that they only associate with other racists.  In a world where activists are worried about micro-aggressions and the crypto-bigotry that still exists among elites, scaring those folks out of discussing those beliefs seems like a sure fire way to make sure their prejudices stay hidden and shared only among themselves.

We live with unprecedented public intellectual and moral engagement. The number of fora for people to engage their beliefs has exploded.  Groups of people who have really never spoken to one another except through representatives in Congress, the intelligentsia, and the newspapers, are now in direct confrontation with one another.  It’s ugly.  We’re trigger happy.

Well, so are spouses not happy during their first marriage counseling sessions after not having sex or talking about it for five years.  That doesn’t mean that the end game is to scream until the divorce papers are ready.

If we want to keep ventilating in perpetuity, the current approach guarantees that we’ll have a reason to vent.  Bigotry ain’t goin anywhere by reducing public discussion to a playground gossip mill and black list.  Making the world a more reasoned and tolerant place is going to take a lot more work than refusing to play with the kids we don’t like and talking about how gross they are.

Preaching Non-Violence with AK’s

By Graham Peterson

Jainist monks sweep as they walk so as not to accidentally step on ants because they believe in a universal form of non-violence.  Imagine if they preached that doctrine with prayer beads in one hand, and a rifle in the other.

And yet that is essentially the message libertarians seem to send when we claim our vision is of a nonviolent utopia, but support gun ownership, and even cheer on militias when they stand up for cattle ranchers.  Now, I find red neck militias and gun fanaticism a little frightening.  But I find the fact that the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Education both have paramilitary forces terrifying.

From our perspective, it seems perfectly reasonable to support the armament of the population whence we are totally convinced of the inevitability of violent government tyranny.  Our bet is that a bunch of gun enthusiasts and a few paranoid reactionaries embedded in a world of mostly peace loving people will be (and currently are) under any circumstances much less violent than a government that would fight cancer with flash grenades, or at least fines with threats of jail time, if it could blame cancer on someone.

But we libertarians have to understand why our message seems so comical.  Most people are decidedly not convinced of the position that government is a tyranny.  Indeed, most people see governments like we see markets — a highly imperfect system that is, on balance, better than any other alternative.  That shrugging, popular support for government comes from what Bryan Caplan has intelligently labeled Indirect Coercion.

The government will find the cheapest channels through which to harass people.  So it focuses on harassing businesses, rather than consumers, when it wants to stop people from doing deals with one another.  So too, I have added, it focuses on transportation networks where people are conveniently herded together, like roads and airports.  Or it focuses on minorities.

Since the government selects its opportunities for harassment and exploitation intelligently and economically, few people are prone to see it as a giant harassment and exploitation machine.  The net effect is that people largely support a giant, violent tyranny: “it’s no skin off my nose.”  Indirect.  On the other hand, the prospect of everyone around you having a gun is pretty direct.  And the idea that such people are the harbingers of peace sounds like a joke.

I realize that libertarians talk a lot more about individual rights and guns than they do charity work and the social cohesion that comes out of markets.  Maybe we can change that, and we won’t look so much like gun-toting Jainist monks.

Trolling Makes Us Smarter and Nicer, Srysly

By Graham Peterson

I don’t mean trolling as in OG trolling like when I was 13 years old (which was 17 years ago, oy), and used to show up in #Catholic on IRC to say nasty things for the lolls. And I don’t mean the more sophisticated version where people pretend to be confederates in one or another blog or forum and deliberately say things that will upset people for no better reason than to upset them. These trolls are hilarious. But rare.

I’m talking about the much more common, now ubiquitous misuse of the word trolling to denote a person with sincere beliefs who argues with strangers because of her desire to persuade and effect change, and who enters online speech communities that offer enough anonymity or physical distance to make crossing social space in order to discuss controversial issues feel comfortable.

It is precisely this kind of trolling which is making us much, much smarter, and more tolerant. The opportunity people now have to match with one another in an ideological market, is unprecedented.  Neither I nor you often challenge the foundational beliefs of our best friends. We gossip about each other’s love lives and make fun of our mutual friends. There’s drinking involved.

But people at the fringes of my social network on my Facebook regularly engage me, and me them, in protracted and hot debate over tons of issues. And here’s the kicker: the number of these conversations increase in direct proportion to the amount of social space between me and my alters. Give me a magazine’s comment section, or blog roll for a tangential professional interest of mine, and, well there you go.

This is what we in sociology might call another instance of the strength of weak ties. One of the strengths of the weak ties on the internet, the weak tie between you and that retweeted rando you battled twits with, is that these weak ties strengthen people’s beliefs and positions, force them to reconsider things they hadn’t thought through well, and expand the existential margins of their lives. This is an incredibly good thing.

People generally assume, on first blush, that all of the battles and nastiness on the internet is an example of just how shitty human beings are, especially when they’re anonymous. To the contrary, I say!  These are conversations that people straight up were just not having before our new technology made communicating with people across further distances in social space exponentially cheaper.

To lok at the nasty things getting said on Youtube’s comments and conclude that internet arguing is lowering the equilibrium of persuasion is to mistake relative for absolute differences.  Sure, relative to the most recent paper presentation at MIT, Youtube comments look . . . ok fine.  But the absolute margin of change for any individual is what matters.  That Youtube commenters (and their many analogues online: sup Reddit) were not discussing matters at all before, and are now making progress toward something that looks like a thought, or a tweet, or FB comment, is remarkable and inspiring.

Baiting one another into debate and venting each other’s biases and bigotry is the first step toward having a reasoned discourse. No one was ever persuaded that slavery was inhumane without a conversation that started with a lot of profanity. So let’s not mistake the immediate effects of this most recent increase in human dialogue with its likely long run consequences.

Goodbye to Gabriel García Márquez

By Amanda Grigg

In celebration of Gabriel García Márquez here is a link to the original (1970) NYT book review of my all-time favorite book, and his masterpiece, 100 Years of Solitude. The review begins, “You emerge from this marvelous novel as if from a dream, the mind on fire.” That sounds about right.

I loved this book so much the first time I read it that I couldn’t bear to part with that copy, which happened to belong to my high school library. I could have easily bought another but in moody teenager fashion (or maybe in the fevered mindset of anyone who’s just finished their first book by Márquez) I felt that I needed that one

The New York Times has collected all of their coverage of Gabriel García Márquez here, but if you’re going to dedicate that much time to reading, read the man himself.

Let’s Talk About Sex (Offenders)

By Marc Allen

First, let’s put some things on the table. There is wide consensus that sexual assault is under reported. There is some disagreement about just how under reported sexual assault among adults is (and some controversy about how it is defined and measured), but there are good estimates that only about a tenth of sexual abuse against children is ever reported. Abuse against children is especially heinous because of the lifelong harm it can inflict on the survivors and the subsequent costs it imposes on society.

Now, let’s talk about one hugely counterproductive way to deal with sexual assault: public sex offender registries.*

Public registries started appearing in the early 1990s and became ubiquitous, with the help of federal legislation, by the early 2000s. Since then, both the feds and the states themselves have slowly been expanding their registries and adding restrictions to registrants.

There have been a number of good pieces in the last few years critical of public registries. HereHere. And here. But public registries remain popular. Some states have expanded their registries in the last decade and/or added additional restrictions to registrants.

You can imagine why this ratcheting upwards keeps happening.  Being pro sex offender isn’t a terribly popular political stance.  Take geographic bans for example. Once registrants are banned from living or loitering within 500 feet of a school, it’s easy and good politics to to expand 500 feet to 1000 feet (or even 2500 feet).  After that, it’s easy to add daycares, parks, churches, and Chuck E Cheese’s to the list of protected places.

The end result of these geographic bans is that large portions of cities become off-limits.  Densely populated areas are especially bad. Here’s a map of the city of Grand Rapids, blue areas are within 1000 feet of a school, red areas are within 1000 feet of a day care:

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This is crazy for a couple of reasons.  First, there’s no data showing that these kind of “school safety zones” have had any effect on the rates of sexual violence committed against school age children.  Most sexual assaults against children are committed by family or friends.  These geographic bans are based on stereotypes and misplaced fears.

Second, as the map above shows, these policies prevent registrants from living or loitering in huge portions of cities.  Which, turns out, is a good way to make someone more likely to recommit a crime.  When offenders are released from prison, they often have no place to go because friends or family members willing to put them up live within one of these exclusion zones.  Stress and instability are huge drivers of recidivism, and registries create both.  Law and economics researchers have found that public registries can actually make registrants more likely to recommit sexual crimes and consequently decrease public safety.

These safety zones are just one of many requirements with little to no empirical justification.  Some registrants are also required to register for life.  This means that a 18 or 19 year old convicted of certain offenses will face reporting requirements, public monitoring, fees, and housing restrictions into their 70s.  As with other crimes, the likelihood that someone will recommit decreases with age, such that the likelihood of an octogenarian recommitting a sexual offense is only slightly higher than him medalling in Olympic ice dancing. Besides the stats, as Human Rights Watch points out, applying these lifelong restrictions to teenage offenders is wildly unjust.

Anyone who takes sexual violence seriously should be pissed.  The feminist/anti-sexual violence community has common cause here with civil libertarians and the good government crowd.  Public registries allow for the kind of othering that makes people feel like they’ve done something about a problem. In reality we’re ignoring the problem. Public registries are the worst of all worlds. They’re a cop out, they’re expensive, and they’re dumb.

*I’m distinguishing public sex offender registries, where offenders faces are posted on a public website (often with their addresses and places of work), from private registries that only law enforcement agencies can access.  There is some data suggesting that the latter actually do have an effect on recidivism rates, which doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a good idea, but at least puts them in the arena of sane policies we can debate.