Why are you hitting yourself? Part 4: the self-hating 99%

This is part 4 of an ongoing discussion of a paper by Jost, Banaji and Nosek discussing System Justification Theory. Read Part 1Read Part 2. Read Part 3.

In this morning’s installment, we explored the phenomenon of implicit valuation of members of high-status groups. Despite what we may say, or what we may consciously believe about ourselves, our actions reveal subconscious attitudes that we may have. Our wish to approve of, or make excuses for, the status quo of our social lives leads those who are on the top of power gaps to exhibit bias towards themselves. At the same time, that same desire puts those at the bottom of those divides in the somewhat bizarre role of showing the same bias – toward those at the top. This effect is not seen when measuring explicit attitudes – what people are willing to admit to – but shows up when we can find ways to ‘bypass’ conscious processing.

In this installment, I’m going to look explicitly at one aspect of how system justification theory manifests itself: political ideology. [Read more...]

Bacon, porn, and rainbows: poverty edition

I am a liberal. I am not a hyphenated liberal, or a centre-left or a “social liberal, fiscal conservative” or any such nonsense. Probably the least liberal thing about me is that I refuse to dither over whether or not I am a liberal. I believe, proudly in fact, that people can get together and solve social problems. I further believe that government, properly scrutinized by the public, can be a place where those solutions can be implemented. I am aware that there are arguments for and against public sector involvement – I am far more comfortable with democracy than I am with unregulated free markets.

When we apply our shoulders to the wheels of social policy, we can make monumental changes that make life better for the people who need it most. When we fail to make the commitment to act, it makes life worse: [Read more...]

How DARE you?! Conversations about liberal racism

Being a liberal is often associated, rightly or wrongly, with smugness or an air of superiority. For example, oftentimes this ‘superiority’ is the product of a comprehensive education in the humanities and sciences (dare I say a ‘liberal arts’ education)? When someone makes a reductive claim – attributing outcome A solely to input B – liberals often point out that there are causes C-Z to consider as well. What the reductive claim-maker hears is “you’re stupid and I’m better than you because you didn’t know that”. It is no accident that the forces of anti-intellectualism line up almost exclusively on the right.

But beyond the explanations for why there are reasons why liberals might be seen as arrogant when in fact we aren’t, there certainly does exist some legitimate arrogance that comes from the same source as conservative arrogance, or the sense of superiority manifesting itself in any group. When one associates with only those (or primarily those) that share your group monicker, one begins to believe one’s own propaganda. Tea Party groups really do believe, for example, that they are true patriots who only want government off their backs – that’s because they don’t read the polls that reveal them to simply be the new face of the religious right. Religious groups really do believe, as another example, that theirs is the ‘true’ interpretation of the holy books – that’s because they don’t recognize that their ‘proofs’ of their deity are the same as those of a competing group.

With liberals, the most vexing of these myths is the one about racism being ‘their’ problem. Namely, that being liberal makes you vouchsafed from racist thoughts or ideas. I can understand where this myth comes from. Conservatism, particularly when it comes to immigration and civil rights, is always on the side of the status quo – hence the name. Because an argument against allowing immigrants (which is often an argument against allowing certain immigrants) access to citizenship always carries with it the stench of anti-brown bigotry, those on the conservative side end up holding the bag for racism and xenophobia. The same goes for civil rights and access – it was conservatives opposing the Civil Rights Act, it was (and is) conservatives opposing lesbian/gay marriage rights, which leaves them tagged with repeated instances of bigotry.

Because liberals have been on the other side of these fights (by and large), liberals have become comfortable with the assumption that adopting this political stance is impervious armour against accusations of thoughtcrime. Indeed, when having drinks with a colleague and discussing politics, he made some offhand remark about how as liberals, we had to overcome racism from the right. He was visibly first confused, then alarmed when I suggested to him that, in fact, liberals are racist too. It might not look the same as conservative racism, but it still has the same effect.

It was with these thoughts in the back of my mind that I read this piece in The Nation:

Electoral racism in its most naked, egregious and aggressive form is the unwillingness of white Americans to vote for a black candidate regardless of the candidate’s qualifications, ideology or party. This form of racism was a standard feature of American politics for much of the twentieth century. So far, Barack Obama has been involved in two elections that suggest that such racism is no longer operative. His re-election bid, however, may indicate that a more insidious form of racism has come to replace it.

In it, Dr. Harris-Perry (who I follow on Twitter) lays out an argument for why white voters, who supported Barack Obama in the first election, may be abandoning him now at a greater rate than they did President Clinton in the 90′s – despite the many political and situational similarities between the two. Given that so many of the ostensible reasons for withdrawing support are balanced between the two administrations, racism may explain, at least in part, any differences in voter support and approval. It’s hard to argue that race and racism have not played a role in this particular presidency far more than in others.

Because I liked both this article and a related one that more closely explored the racial attitudes of Bill Clinton more specifically and liberals more generally, I fired a quick message to Dr. Harris-Perry in support, because I knew that she was taking quite a bit of flack for her audacious temerity to suggest that liberals weren’t the immaculate paragons of fairness that we make ourselves out to be. Basically, just a “hey, I liked your piece in the Nation.” Didn’t even get a reply. No biggie.

It was a few short hours before a friend of mine sent me a seemingly-indignant message, asking me to defend my support for Harris-Perry’s article. She/he had procured statistics suggesting that all presidents lose favourability in their first terms (which the article doesn’t dispute), and that she/he saw more differences between the two presidencies than the article had pointed out. When I replied, briefly, that the article was more about the attitude I have described above, she/he challenged me to provide data demonstrating the racism at play. It was at this point that I simply gave up, as I wasn’t really interested in defending someone else’s work while trying to eat my dinner, and the article in question talked about the next election, not the current polling.

This exchange wouldn’t be unusual, except that I happen to know that this person is a regular reader. I say all kinds of unsubstantiated shit on these pages pretty much every day. While I do my best, I don’t always provide full citations for my conclusions or speculations, leaving it up to the reader to dispute them. Most of the time, this particular friend chooses not to dispute, even when I am talking about racial topics. However, this particular statement – a throwaway line of congratulations in a Tweet – stuck in her/his craw long enough that she/he went stats hunting.

So in the same way that Harris-Perry has done, I am openly speculating here that this kind of “prove it” attitude from liberals who spontaneously become skeptical whenever they have a dog in the fight (which, by the way, Harris-Perry wrote another piece about), comes at least in part from the cognitive dissonance at play when they are accused of racism. “I couldn’t possibly be racist,” they say, as though being liberal means you were raised on a different planet. We are all products of the same system. If someone points out that a behaviour has racial connotations, instead of reflexively reaching for counterexamples, perhaps take the time to consider the possibility, and engage in the argument that person is making, rather than the one you hear through your rage.

I will close with Dr. Harris-Perry’s words:

Racism is not the the sole domain of Republicans, Conservatives or Southerners. Not all racists pepper their conversation with the N-word or secretly desire the extermination of black and brown people. Racism is complex, multi-layered, and deeply rooted in the American story. Name calling is not helpful in uprooting racism, but neither is a false sense of moral superiority.

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Hate speech: it’s got a funky beat, and I can bug out to it!


One of the frustrating things about delving into the world of anti-racism is that you will inevitably run into someone who makes a completely unbalanced equivocation between the racism that people of colour (PoCs) encounter and the discomfort associated with race relations from the point of view of a white person. “I live in an all-black neighbourhood – I can’t even ride the bus without feeling people stare at me!” And while trying to be careful not to minimize their discomfort, some poor sap has to explain that when you get off that bus outside your neighbourhood, it is in every conceivable way better for you to be  white person than the black people who make you feel like the ‘victim of reverse racism’.

Within the construct of North American racial relations, there are really very few examples of legitimate anti-white racism. If one comes from the perspective that racism is the product of prejudice and power – that is, that racism must have some real force behind it to be meaningful – then there are essentially none. I don’t personally subscribe to that definition, but it does have a lot of merit in specific contexts (I won’t go further than that for now. Maybe another time). Critics of anti-racism, therefore, conflate the approach with simply being “anti-white”, which is about as accurate as saying that feminism is anti-male (but of course there are many who think that as well).

Therefore I am, in a weird way, happy to present you with the following:

South Africa’s high court has ruled that the anti-apartheid song Shoot the Boer is hate speech and banned the ruling ANC from singing it. Afrikaans interest group Afriforum had complained about ANC youth league leader Julius Malema singing the song, which refers to white farmers. Mr Malema and other ANC leaders had argued that the song was a celebration of the fight against minority rule. They said the words were not meant to be taken literally.

Long-time readers of this blog will be familiar with my sometimes-fraught relationship with hate speech. While I am a proud progressive liberal, my stance on free speech is something of a digression from my fellows, who believe that speech inciting hatred can be and should be legally curtailed. My problem with hate speech controls comes from a variety of sources – first of all I am unconvinced that we can define and enforce a consistent standard of ‘hate’. Even if we could, there is incomplete evidence to suggest that hate speech restrictions reduce the amount of hatred in society, rather than simply shifting it underground (where it is arguably more dangerous).

That being said, I don’t think we should simply call all speech good simply because it exists. There is absolutely hate speech, and it is always deplorable. We should criticize ideas vigorously and unashamedly. We should treat the people who hold those ideas as our fellow human beings, with all the fundamental rights we would like for ourselves and those we love. As much as I am happy to criticize religious zealots, or racists, or climate change denialists, or any group that holds positions that I think are destructive, the moment that someone attempts to treat those people as anything other than humans deserving of respect I will take up a placard and demonstrate for their rights.

Not so for Mr. Malema. My attempts at prognostication are usually simple idle speculation, but having read a bit of his background, I think that when a man like Julius Malema gains real political power, it will be the dawn of a dangerous era for South Africa. While he may not harbour legitimate hatred of white people, he is not above fanning the flames of hatred in those that do, and who see their violent hatred reflected in his speech. While his calls to “shoot the Boer” are, to hear him say it, simply a nod toward the history of the ANC, they are also a very specific call for violence. At that point we have left the realm of political speech and entered into criminal territory.

The song can be heard here (although it won’t mean much to you if you don’t speak Afrikaans):

Whatever you think about the content, you’ve got to admit: it’s catchy.

Like any demagogue worth her/his salt, Malema has managed to frame this censure as an illegitimate organization trying to silence the voice of truth coming from the common man:

Mr Malema said he would push for reform to the court system, which he said had not changed since the apartheid era. “If not being transformed means it’s racist, then so be it,” said Mr Malema, youth leader of the African National Congress (ANC). “Once again we find ourselves subjected to white minority approval. Apartheid is being brought through the back door.” He said he wanted liberation songs to be protected by law. “These were the songs of resistance and they will never die,” he said.

I have no problem with preserving historical artifacts, even if they’re racist. I might go so far as to say we should be more protective of the distasteful parts of our history, since they are the ones we need to learn the most from. If the question was whether or not the song can be discussed and the court ruled that the song must be banned altogether, then Mr. Malema would have a valid point. However, what he is doing instead is using deep-seated racial tension to bolster support for his ridiculous and disastrous social and economic policies – a Southern Strategy for South Africa.

Removing for a moment the discussion of who can claim responsibility for the simmering racial resentment that seems to define the political reality for South Africa, it is trivially easy to highlight this as an example of legitimate anti-white racism. A political case is being built around the exclusion and, apparently, violent suppression of the white minority in South Africa. While there are a million issues to tease out from this story – how much of a minority white South Africans really are, for example – even an anti-racist like myself can point to this as a clear case of racist hate speech.

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Poverty: fallen and can’t get up

I’m stepping outside my area of expertise far more than usual for this one, so I hope you’ll forgive me for my even more amateurish look at this topic. The reason I’m even bothering is because it’s been cropping up more and more in my own explorations of race, racial disparity and social program development. For those coming here for atheism stuff, I promise that I’ll have a dynamite anti-theist screed ready for action next week. Cross my heart.

On Thursday I tipped my hand a bit on this topic when I spoke about the way that prison can (and often does) lead to an increase in the very same poverty that, in many cases, was the impetus for the same crime that lands someone in jail. If our goal as a society is to reduce and prevent crime, then we should be looking at ways to reduce and prevent poverty. It is not simply a bleeding heart “think of the children” kind of approach – reducing poverty can be an act of self preservation. If we don’t pay to reduce crime, we pay to clean it up far later. I was first turned on to this topic when I read an article on Cracked.com:

I’m not blaming anybody but myself for getting into this situation (I was drunk for two straight decades) and I’m not asking for anybody’s sympathy. What I am saying is that people are quick to tell you to pick yourself up by your bootstraps and just stop being poor. What they don’t understand is the series of intricate financial traps that makes that incredibly difficult.

It details the author’s struggle to regain solvency after going broke, and the number of hurdles he had to overcome. The piece goes far beyond the simple problems of making enough money to live on, pointing out the number of things that keep you poor once you’re already down in the hole. Little things that only affect those who live below the poverty line.  Things that prevented him from regaining financial independence, even when his household was pulling in a dual income.

As the author takes pains to point out, he is not asking for sympathy or trying to blame anyone else for his situation. It is immaterial both to his point and mine. It is not really necessary to understand why someone lives below the poverty line, except insofar as we need to understand what the best way to get that person out of poverty is. The point is that once you are there, it’s incredibly difficult to get out on your own, and the problems are often things that we who live above that line don’t see or think about.

The link between poverty and crime is a strong enough one that it should be sufficient motivation for us to want to eradicate poverty. After all, crime has the potential to harm any of us, even we innocents who haven’t done anything so stupid as to put us in that bad financial shape. All the jails in the world won’t be enough to save us. And of course jails don’t protect us from future crimes – they just temporarily lock up those who have already committed crimes. I’m not sure what the state of the evidence is supporting the old chestnut that people go into jail as minor criminals and come out as major criminals, but once again it’s immaterial to my argument.

But let’s say that take a particularly hard-line view of crime and decide that more jails will be sufficient. There are still reasons beyond crime prevention to want to reduce poverty. People who have low incomes and low economic security also consume far more health care resources than those in the middle (or upper) classes. Even outside the confines of our socialized health care system, poverty creates a greater burden on the health care system. Scarce resources go to treat conditions that would not exist save for the poverty of the afflicted. Even in a for-profit health care delivery system, these are the same resources that non-impoverished people use, and drains on them hurt us.

But let’s say that you exist in even more of a vacuum than most, and you have a private doctor that tends to your every ache and pain. Let’s also say that you don’t mind your tax dollars going to the health care system (because they do, even in the USA before the dreaded Health Care Reform Act). Even then, eliminating poverty is still in your selfish best interest. Impoverished people are a drain on the economy (it is important that this not be interpreted as a judgment on people living below the poverty line – it is simply a fact). Even those that work are often mired deeply in debt, which is only good news for the lending agencies that make money off of interest – until, that is, the poor default on their loans and declare bankruptcy. This is to say nothing of social assistance programs that get a disproportionately high level of criticism and a disproportionately low level of funding and autonomy.

Poverty also has a racial component, since people of colour (PoCs) are far more likely to be impoverished for reasons that I have hinted at before. While it is easy (and fun) to blame PoCs for their condition, the fact is that poverty isn’t a product of laziness. It is, as the Cracked article so aptly puts it, “like trying to climb out of a dick pit but the ladder is also made of dicks.” There are any number of forces that pull you down deeper into poverty and make it unbelievably difficult to leave. It is a trap into which people and families can sink forever.

Poverty should require work to get out of – to be sure. I am not advocating the opening of government coffers to give a slush fund to every street person with a hand out. What I am advocating is much more simple than that – create opportunities for people to learn to do for self. Put training, education, housing, and opportunity  within the grasp of every street person looking for a hand up. Give people the wherewithal to improve their own situations through hard work and innovation. Yes, this will require sacrifice on the part of those of us not living in poverty, and this may seem unfair. What I am hoping is that they (we) are smart enough to realize that, for the reasons I point to above, reducing poverty and inequality is in the best interest of everyone, not just the poor.

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What does winning look like?

It is easy (tantalizingly so) to rail against racism, pointing out only the negative aspects. After all, it doesn’t take a great deal of creativity or courage on my part to say ‘racism is bad’ and for readers to say ‘I agree’. I doubt I will ruffle any feathers making such proclamations, although I know there are definitely some of you that weren’t completely with me at first and have since come around to my way of thinking. This is encouraging, as it means that there is some collision of persuasion and open-mindedness happening on these pages. It takes only a few such interactions to make major change.

And it may… just may be that we are seeing some of that change happening before our eyes:

In 1994, Ellis Cose surveyed successful, middle-class African-Americans and uncovered an often unspoken rage. He described his findings in the book The Rage Of A Privileged Class. Now, 17 years later, Cose has discovered a major change among middle-class blacks: They have become one of the most optimistic groups in America. He reveals his findings in a new book, The End Of Anger.

This is encouraging news indeed, for a few reasons. First, it suggests that at least some progress has been achieved toward a harmonization of the middle class, despite racial differences. Second, it shows a decline in the narrative of ‘us vs. them’ that often seems to pervade the discussions of black/white racism. Third, it flies in the face of those who would claim that black people prefer to play victim rather than work to advance. Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, it may be possible to learn what things have worked and what haven’t and to use those lessons to inform future social progress.

To the first point, it is important to be cautious. This study does not say that black people no longer feel like racism is a problem:

Cose tells NPR’s Neal Conan that the rise in optimism is not linked to perceived end of discrimination. “No one black who I talked to thinks we have arrived at a point where we are an equal opportunity nation,” Cose says.

What it does say is that the perception of opportunity is greater, and this has begun to pervade the general consciousness. Spurred perhaps by the existence of prominent models of colour in high-ranking positions (other than the sport or other entertainment industry), black kids have grown up with a substantially different understanding of the possibilities of achievement than their parents did. At the risk of reading way more into this than the evidence warrants, this exact effect is one of the goals of affirmative action policies: increase the number of high-profile professionals that are people of colour (PoCs) so as to provide role models for others. Whether or not that is the reason for this shift is debatable, but it certainly nods in that direction.

Second, this study seems to corroborate what we saw last week: namely, that the entrenched conflict between black and white seems to be diminishing (at least in the eyes of black people). Instead of general frustration at the barriers in place to advancement, young black professionals are reporting belief that with hard work, they can advance. Again, these are perceptions, not observed data, so we must be cautious when interpreting what this actually means. This culture of advancement works to benefit both sides: black professionals can begin to assert themselves and change the narrative about what it means to have dark skin, while white professionals will begin to see that having intelligent and hard-working black colleagues is not a zero-sum game, but rather a boon to their business and productivity.

Critics of anti-racism often charge them (us) with coddling PoCs, and promoting a culture of victimhood. Black people wouldn’t be where they are, these critics say, if the liberals didn’t spoon-feed them and convince them that all their problems were someone else’s (whitey’s) fault. Of course, as is the way with this brand of criticism, it comes without evidence. When the attitudes are measured, we see that as we work to improve society’s permeability for PoCs by legislating against some forms of discrimination, PoCs are ready not only to take advantage of the opportunity but to adjust their expectations. Black people (at least those in this study) are happy to take control when opportunities are presented and barriers are taken down.

This is good and useful information, and this phenomenon must be explored more thoroughly. Considering the increasing visibility of the Latin and Arab communities in the United States, South and East Asians in Canada, and the looming spectre of systemic race problems in Europe, it is vital to have an understanding of what works and what doesn’t. While different minority groups have their own unique issues, we can learn what narratives are conducive to progress and which ones simply allow the status quo of single-group supremacy to maintain indefinitely.

Many of these issues are generational, meaning that children born in this era will likely not see the same kinds of racism that, for example, I saw while I was growing up. They will have a profoundly different understanding of what race means, and they will have to grapple with brand new issues that we can’t even conceive of now. However, it is good to see that their parents will be bringing them up in a world that gives them a positive attitude about what they can achieve with hard work. Some of that may be illusory, some of it may be true only thanks to policies enacted in their parents’ lifetimes, and some may indeed have always been true.

So while we are far from a true version of a ‘post-racial’ utopia, we may be seeing some of the initial signs that point the way to a more productive and equitable conversation about race.

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Movie Friday: A Girl Like Me – unpacking societal racism

On Wednesday I talked a bit about the subconscious realm in which racist ideologies often lie. If we’re careful, we can measure and observe exactly how these thoughts and ideations affect our decision-making. The question then arises as to where these ideas come from in the first place. Do secret cabals of white supremacists slip into our rooms as children and whisper hate-speech in our ears as we sleep (well, maybe that’s the case for some of us, I have no idea). More likely, we notice patterns of behaviour and external stimuli, and our minds forms patterns and ideas about them long before we are able to put them into words.

We have these ideas sitting in our brains, doing work on our minds without our even noticing them. This may be particularly true for black women, as the above video may suggest, simply because we simultaneously have such a negative view of black features and place such a premium on appearance in women. This kind of implicit attitude formation happens to us as children, as we are surrounded by imagines that imply the superiority of whiteness and the inferiority of colour. It is only natural that not only would white children think negatively of children of colour, but that children of colour would similarly internalize these attitudes and think poorly of themselves.

Of course these kinds of things are hard to unpack, and as we get older our conscious minds can be taught to recognize these attitudes and reverse them. However, if we are so hell-bent on denying our own racist thoughts in some fit of arch-liberal self-righteousness, we will never learn to check our own assumptions. When the chips are down and we’re under pressure, we will continue to make decisions based on these gut instincts that we learn as children.

It’s not a black/white issue either:

Society gives us narratives about the people around us, and we internalize them without thinking. Evolutionarily, this is a useful trait for ensuring group cohesion – we will tend to reach consensus and can do so instinctively. However, when it comes to trying to break out of the evolutionary mould and design a society that is equitable to all people, we run into serious problems if we rely on these instincts rather than consistent introspection and vigilance. That kind of constant self-monitoring isn’t easy (trust me, I have a propensity to say stupid misogynistic stuff in the service of getting a laugh – deprogramming yourself is hard work), but it’s the only way to overcome biases that might otherwise go completely unnoticed.

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Tough on crime

One does not have to plumb the depths of political rhetoric very far to expose the unbelievable hypocrisy and outright falsehood lying just beneath the varnished surface of its truisms. The right to publicly-administered health care is not slavery. Republicans are not better on the economy. The Harper Government™ is not tough on crime:

The Supreme Court of the Canada will hear arguments this week that will likely determine the future of Vancouver’s supervised injection site, known as Insite. The court will have to decide whether Insite is a health-care facility under the jurisdiction of the B.C. government, and whether closing it violates the rights of impoverished drug addicts.

Supporters, including the province, say a body of peer-reviewed studies has proven Insite prevents overdose deaths, reduces the spread of HIV and hepatitis, and curbs crime and open drug use. But the federal government rejects that evidence, arguing the facility fosters addiction and runs counter to its tough-on-crime agenda.

Those of you not familiar with Vancouver’s safe injection site should read Ethan Clow’s excellent analysis of the issue. I will do my best to summarize. As we learned from the United States in the 1920s (and from our own failed national experiment), prohibition is a really stupid way of trying to stop people from doing something. There are generally two ways of preventing an unwanted behaviour – enforcement and outreach. Prohibition puts the emphasis firmly into the first camp by creating stiff penalties for engaging in the unwanted behaviour. With respect to drugs, this means punishing those that use and sell drugs.

One of the biggest looming issues facing Canadians with the Republican North majority is the introduction of the omnibus crime bill. Basically, this bill calls for money to be funneled into the prison system, including the construction of new incarceration facilities. Of course, this comes at a time when crime rates are in fact dropping, but the RNP has a solution for that too - make more things crimes! Mandatory minimum sentencing is one tool in the arsenal of a prohibitive government – take legal leeway out of the hands of judges and force standard jail terms regardless of the severity of the crime.

The problem, as anyone with even the slightest insight into human behaviour and psychology will be able to tell you, is that people are generally going to do whatever they want if they don’t think they’ll get caught. When it comes to drugs (especially drugs like marijuana with negligible personal risk due to use), people will always want to get high, and unless you have cops on every street corner and outside every window, people will find a way to do just that. While drug use may be a bad thing (I think the issue is more nuanced than that, but let’s just grant the assertion for a moment), if your goal is to reduce drug use, your policies should be targeted at doing just that.

If you don’t think that drug use per se is bad, but rather the consequences of drug use (addiction, self-harm, overdose, loss of control) are bad, then you would likely favour an approach known as “harm reduction”. Basically, the idea is to find a way to allow people to do what they want but to minimize the negative repercussions. For example, alcohol is regulated in such a way as to minimize the damage – only licensed facilities may dispense it and staff must be trained to recognize intoxication; only people of a certain age may purchase it; purity of ingredients is inspected by the government – people still drink, but in a way that is much safer than it used to be before those regulations were in place.

In the case of Insite, the negative health consequences of intravenous drug use are mitigated by providing clean needles (that are not infected with HIV) and a safe place to get high. Needles are disposed of safely (rather than in the streets, where any number of things can and do happen to them), and overdoses are managed by professionals. It is certainly not ideal – ideal would be to have zero drug users – but it does save lives, reduce infection rates, and actually saves the city a lot of money. It is the kind of local control for a local problem that small-government conservatives and libertarians should applaud.

Not so the Republicans though. They claim to be “tough on crime”, but what they actually are is litigious on crime. They endorse laws that expand the role of the federal government to interfere in municipal matters and take discretion out of the hands of judges and place it in the (completely incapable) hands of elected officials. This is the kind of behaviour, of course, that Conservatives (note the capitalization) constantly accuse Liberals of; however, it’s only wrong when it’s something Conservatives don’t like. When it’s for their own cause, there is always some bullshit rationalization.

I have a friend who is a prison guard (actually I have a few, but I am talking about this one in particular) who was overjoyed over the RPN majority election. His rationale was that there would finally be attention paid to the state of the prison system, and no more coddling of criminals. Far be it from me to question his expertise in terms of what the inside of a prison looks like – he’s in one every day and I haven’t even visited. However, I think his assessment is short-sighted. The omnibus crime bill creates more criminals, it does not reduce crime. If anything, it statistically increases crime (convenient, when you have all these new prisons to fill) by creating new criminals. It does not reduce the harms caused by criminal behaviour, nor does it do anything to reduce the true underlying causes of criminal behaviour (income disparity, lack of opportunity/education, living conditions).

Both the political left and right undoubtedly want to reduce the incidence of crime. It is in nobody’s best interest for there to be more crime. However, one side of the political debate has chosen a method that is proven not to work, and does so in the name of being “tough on crime”. Nothing could be further from the truth, and we are all about to learn this first-hand.

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There’s no justice, there’s just us

There is a concept in psychology called the “just world hypothesis”, also known as the “just world fallacy”. In its essence, this concept refers to our tendency to infer that the world operates as it should – goodness is rewarded and iniquity is punished. Where the fallacious component of this phenomenon crops up is when we allow this thought process to operate in reverse – those who are punished or rewarded must have deserved it, because the world just works that way.

This is a particularly attractive heuristic for a number of reasons. First, it is reassuring to think that we live in a universe where things exist in a state of balance – chaos is unsettling and potentially dangerous. Second, and perhaps most compellingly, it gives us a sense of satisfaction to think that the hard work we put in will be rewarded. It gives us even more satisfaction to think that those who do wrong will get their come-uppance in the end, a phenomenon called schadenfreude.

There is no place in which the just world fallacy is more obvious than in theology. Regardless of which deity we are talking about, there is always a balance between the forces of good and the forces of evil, with the good guys eventually winning out in the end. Christianity falls down this path most egregiously, with an accounting of a final battle and judgment that is the stuff of great myth; however, all the great religious traditions put great faith in the idea of ultimate balance. The very concept of an afterlife is an implicit reward for a good life or punishment for a life used for ill.

This fallacy pops up outside the realm of religion, however. It is this fallacy that allows us to look at the horrendous disparity between the living conditions of First Nations people, of women, of people living in starvation in southeast Asia and Africa, and rationalize it. Take a look at the comments section of any news report from that region (particularly about what is currently happening in the Ivory Coast), and you’ll undoubtedly come across someone with a brilliant statement like “well all of those African leaders are corrupt – what do they expect?”

It’s nice to be able to explain away injustice with such a simple wave of the hand. Doing so removes any sense of responsibility you might feel for the way corporations from which we purchase goods exploit and devastate those countries, destabilizing them to a point where corruption becomes de rigeur. It removes any feelings of guilt for the fact that our cities are built on First Nations land, much of which was obtained through dishonest treaty processes. It prevents us from having to feel remorse for propping up a misogynistic system that rewards men for fictitious “superiorities” that we have been told to believe we have. We can then go about our lives without having to constantly examine our every thought and assumption, which is an exhausting process that can prevent anything from actually getting accomplished.

The problem with belief in the just world hypothesis is that it blinds us from seeing the world as it truly is. Consider this figure for a moment:

Anyone who has studied classical mechanics (called ‘physics’ in high school) will immediately recognize this as a free body diagram. The various forces at work on the rectangular object are presented. When we can identify the direction and magnitude of these forces, we can make meaningful predictions about the behaviour of the object. However, if we neglect one of the forces either in how strong it is or where it’s going, our predictions – indeed, our very understanding of the object – are fundamentally flawed (e.g., if we forget about friction, we would expect the block to slide down the ramp – friction may keep it exactly where it is).

Society and the people of which it is comprised can be thought of in much the same way. When we neglect to take into account the forces that are at work on us, our predictions and understanding of the world is meaningfully misconstrued. If we add in other forces that aren’t actually there, then we’re realy in trouble. The just world fallacy is just such an addition – it postulates the existence of an outside influence that inherently balances other forces that may result in unjust disparity. We are then relieved from any sense of responsibility to correct injustices.

The ultimate manifestation of this is the bromide “everything happens for a reason”. Starving kids in Ethiopia? Illegal wars? Abuse and deprivation? Exploitation of vulnerable peoples? Don’t worry, everything happens for a reason. Justice will win out in the end, without any need for action from you, safe behind your wall of fallacy.

It’s not exactly difficult to see why this view of the world is fundamentally dangerous. The world is not a fair place. In fact, “fairness” is an essentially human construction – sometimes animals are predated into extinction, sometimes entire ecosystems are destroyed by natural disasters, it’s entirely possible that entire planetary civilizations were wiped out by a supernova in some far-flung corner of the galaxy. These things are only “unfair” to human eyes – as far as the universe is concerned, them’s the breaks. I suppose there is some truth to the statement that “everything happens for a reason” – it’s just that this reason is that we live in a random, uncaring universe.

If we wish to live in a fair world – and I’d like to hope that we do – then it is incumbent upon us to make it that way. The only force for justice that exists is in the hands of human beings, and the only strength behind that force is the level of responsibility we feel to make it so. It is of no use to cluck our tongues and say “well that’s the way it goes” or “things will work out” – making statements like that is the same as saying “I don’t care about the suffering of those people”. If that’s the case (and oftentimes it is), we should at least be honest with ourselves and say it outright.

It is for this reason that I identify as a liberal – I am not content to let the universe sort things out. The universe doesn’t care, and there’s no reason to believe that the unfairness of random chance will result in justice for those that centuries of neglect have left behind. If we care about justice, then it’s up to us to make it happen.

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TL/DR: The world is not a fair place, although we like to try and convince ourselves that it is. If we want to live in a fair world, then we have to make it that way.

Unopposed hypocrisy

I am what libertarians would describe as a ‘statist’. I believe that the government can and should play an active role in maintaining the stability of the society, as well as being actively involved in the economy. Of course, the word ‘statist’ has a bunch of other baggage that doesn’t apply to me at all, and I certainly have some libertarian leanings that my more liberal brethren disagree with, but suffice it to say I am not in favour of a completely hands-off approach to governing, nor do I necessarily think that the private sector will do a better job than the public sector in controlling costs or delivering high-quality services.

The only way that the democratic process can work well for the people is if there is a strong and effective opposition. The government’s interests should be to best represent the people, but as history shows us, it tends to become self-serving. Regular elections help balance that out, but an effective opposition can bring light and voter attention to issues that might otherwise escape notice. In the absence of a powerful opposition, or when the opposition has power but cannot wield it effectively, the government has a free hand to indulge in its favourite pastime: soul-crushing corruption and hypocrisy.

US state department spokesman PJ Crowley has resigned from his post following controversial comments involving the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks. The news on Sunday came three days after Crowley was reported to have criticised the Pentagon’s treatment of detained US soldier Bradley Manning. Crowley said the defence department’s handling of Manning, who is accused of leaking thousands of confidential US documents to WikiLeaks, was “stupid” and “counterproductive”.

So… let’s get this straight. A non-violent, non-enemy military person leaks non-mission-critical information to a journalistic outlet that makes the info available to the world. That person is locked in a maximum-security prison, deprived of his civil rights, humiliated and held without trial. This, according to the Obama administration, is in no way cause for anyone to be fired. Despite repeated violations of the constitution and basic decency, there are no deleterious consequences for the way in which Manning is being treated.

Someone within the administration voices a perfectly reasonable criticism of this atrocity, and he’s pushed out. Someone, incidentally, with years of experience in a time when experienced state officials are sorely needed. And the rabbit hole of hypocrisy and self-immolation doesn’t stop there:

Of course, it’s also the case in Barack Obama’s world that those who instituted a worldwide torture and illegal eavesdropping regime are entitled to full-scale presidential immunity, while powerless individuals who blow the whistle on high-level wrongdoing and illegality are subjected to the most aggressive campaign of prosecution and persecution the country has ever seen. So protecting those who are abusing Manning, while firing Crowley for condemning the abuse, is perfectly consistent with the President’s sense of justice.

Also, remember how one frequent Democratic critique made of the Right generally and the Bush administration specifically was that they can’t and won’t tolerate dissent: everyone is required to march in lockstep? I wonder how that will be reconciled with this.

This, from a Republican president, would be a not-so-shocking example of executive overreach. From a Democratic president who campaigned on changing the way politics is done in America, this is a disgusting betrayal not only of the trust of those who voted for him, but of liberal democratic principals and basic human decency.

So where, pray tell, is the outrage over this issue? Where are the Republicans to stand up for the constitution, for civil rights, for open and transparent government? Oh right, the Republicans are more concerned over stripping the rights of workers to stand up to their employers and the rights of women to sexual self-determination to bother with something as trivial as the rule of law.

An effective, well-coordinated and disciplined political opposition is crucial to the health of a democratic state. No matter who is in power, she/he will invariably become corrupt and begin abusing her/his power. A political opposition provides a check on that power, to ensure that corruption is exposed. When your opposition is completely incompetent, then the interests of absolutely nobody are represented, and everyone loses.

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