Thursday, October 29, 2015

When Freedom Means Mindless Obedience

Where news headlines are concerned, "video shows out-of-control police behavior" has become the new "pregnant woman gives birth": this happens all the time, so unless you're personally acquainted with one or more of the actors involved, all those different stories start blending together after awhile.

The most recent video as I type this, a snippet of cell phone footage out of a high school in South Carolina, shows former Deputy Ben Fields having an apparent roid-rage tantrum: a teenage girl refused to put away her cell phone when ordered, and then continued sitting at her desk after being asked to leave, so Fields flipped her right out of her chair, injuring her in the process. (Yes, the girl was being willfully disobedient and did break more than one school rule. Teenagers are wont to do that -- if you don't believe me, check any adolescent-psychology textbook of the sort which high school employees are supposed to read before starting the job -- and if you can't respond to a non-violent but disobedient kid without escalating into violence yourself, you have no business working in a school. Or being any sort of cop, for that matter. But I digress.)

What makes matters worse is that the poor girl was already in a dark place: she'd recently moved into a foster home and enrolled in a new school after being orphaned. Everything familiar in her life had already vanished and then, in the depths of her depression, she was violently assaulted by someone who, in theory, was supposed to be her protector.

And her classmates -- who, in theory, are there not just for the academics, but the all-important process of "socialization" -- are learning that authorities will respond to even the slightest hint of disobedience from them with a disproportionate show of force. Which, admittedly, is an important life lesson for anybody coming of age in modern America, especially if they're poor, black or any combination thereof.

And plenty of my fellow Americans appear fine with this status quo. Check any mainstream news websites covering this or any other police-misbehavior story, and in the comment thread you'll find plenty of people, some of whom even post under their own genuine names, siding with the police and pointing out that this could've been avoided if only the girl had immediately obeyed orders without any backtalk or slightest hint of attitude.

Which in itself is sad, but not surprising. What does surprise me is this: among those people who can be reliably counted upon to side with the police anytime such a story comes up, almost all of them can be found in other contexts insisting that America is the Greatest Place in the World because we are a FreeCountry™.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

The Gun Control Debate: America's Real-World "Trolley Problem"

Face it: there are extremists and outright bigots to be found on both sides of the gun-control debate (though of course, I consider myself and [most of] my friends on both sides to rank amongst the reasonable moderates).

Personally, I favor the interpretation which says that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual's right to self-defense, so when certain of my friends suggest we ban guns, or at least subject them to expensive regulations which poor people could not feasibly meet, I'll usually counter with anecdotes such as the Detroit mother of two who last year successfully used her gun to scare off the three male home invaders who'd kicked in her door.

Then my anti-gun friends will offer the (presumably sincere) counterpoint that yes, it would be unfortunate for such people if they were legally rendered defenseless, but overall that will be more than offset by the number of people who will thus be saved from gun violence.

Perhaps the whole debate is merely a modern, real-world version of the famous "trolley problem" in ethics textbooks. The version I first heard went like this: imagine a trolley (or a bus, or other from of mass transit) with five passengers is on some sort of collision corse, and if it stays on its current track it will crash, and all five people will die.

But you, a bystander, have the option to make the trolley switch tracks, or swerve the bus off the road onto a pedestrian walkway, or otherwise make the vehicle change course to avoid the crash. You save those five people ... except that in doing so, you make the vehicle hit and kill an innocent pedestrian who would've been perfectly safe, had the vehicle stayed on its original course. Which is the ethical choice: leave the trolley on the track and let those people die, or change course and kill the one person who would have been perfectly safe, if not for your intervention? 

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