Categories
society

Plagues of Denial

There are certain things we see coming, and, this being 2020, things we didn’t see coming. Until an event actually comes to pass, it’s easy enough to think it may or may not.

An example will help. The Civil War.

For the decades before the war, there was a lot of effort made on both sides of the horror of slavery. Slaves struggled and sometimes freed themselves. They were captured and sent back, or they kept their freedom and worked to free others. Some folks agitated for emancipation. Some manumitted in their wills, others upon inheritance.

But the talk of disunion wasn’t a novelty come the Civil War. It had been seen coming. But still, it did come.

For decades, then, you had the slave states seeing this thing coming. They chose to let it come, and indeed they inaugurated it in attempting to cast off the bond of the Union.

Another example. The Revolutionary War. Again, Britain surely saw that risk, and yet they continued to press with taxation, with bad choices.

I’m sure there are more unseen inevitabilities than seen, but these aren’t hiding. These governments and parties are buying advertising space on their own foreheads. The ads read: “I know it’s coming, but I’m pressing on.”

Denial doesn’t tell the whole story. They know what’s coming. They are the reason it’s coming. They are what creates the conditions. Yet they do not stop or change. We have enough reporting that they’re aware of what they’re doing on some level, so it’s not full denial.

It’s more of a socially-constructed denial. That appearing weak, or making any move to change the course or ease the transition, or to admit to themselves the reality, would… this is where I struggle. The most concise image still is that of Wile E. Coyote. They don’t want to look down. They don’t want to fall. But the farther they go past the cliff, the farther the drop. It’s quite disturbing to watch. The farther down the path the naked emperor parades, the more who see him naked, until that one boy pipes up.

Would it not be better to turn around at the gate of the palace, fire the tailors, put on some trousers? Would it not be better to admit to the inevitable, to change and get ahead of it to be able to smooth the transition?

There are those who did that. Who restored the dignity they or their forebearers had stolen from their fellow men. Who quit their redcoated loyalist ways to become unionists. And there are some in the various coming crises who also do work to mend first, rather than to wait for the forces of nature to rend.

Perhaps it is all in the design of those who seek leadership and power that they cannot lead in crisis. That’s the stuff of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions—the notion that they in the established order cannot bring about anything but crises, and that those who rise up to meet the crisis will supplant them.

But I don’t believe that, not entirely. It lets them off too easily. They are positioned to do exactly what they believe they cannot: to lead.

The governors who opened too fast, who have failed to heed the obvious warnings, they are still in a position to lead. It is not that they are incapable. It’s that they won’t. The system wasn’t designed to, sure. But that they won’t change it as they see the world change before them, that’s a damn shame.

The best analogy that presents itself is that of machine learning. These face recognition systems, trained on biased data, cannot properly recognize some faces. It is the same with those in power, scientific and otherwise, and their failures. The machine learning system, were it articulate, would likely admit its limitations, though. It would seem that a first step toward change would be convincing those in leadership positions the need to look at the world differently than they have. But so far, the only way that happens is after a crisis, not while it is on the horizon.

(To be clear, the list is broad. It includes social media companies who dragged their feet on dealing with hardcore hatemongers on their platforms. It includes police departments and governments that too long ignored or promoted brutality. It includes the reckoning that will someday come for the real estate industry, not just for segregation, but for being a horrid, broken mess with all sorts of crime and misery at work. It includes the climate crisis, and pollution more broadly. The gun lobby. All these myriad problems in society, all known, all coming to heads on their own timelines, but few if any actually dealt with by those in the place to do so.)


Happy Independence Day! On a personal note, my book now has a lower price, at least for the month of July.

Categories
society

Proof of Capacity for Change

If we learn no other lesson from this plague, let it be that we are, in fact, still capable of widespread change. Of rapid change. Of drastic change.

So are the monuments and flags coming down—many are remnants of a false value system and in their pigeonholes new symbols can be made to replace them.

That when we pick a symbol, when we choose a pattern of organization, if it serves well enough we keep it, flaws and all. But when it becomes a harm, when it impedes moving forward, we uproot it. Going to the offices and shops amid a pandemic meant a risk of life and limb, so people stopped abruptly. But for many, those trips or any trips meant maybe they would be pulled over and face the possibility of a false value system of policing that represents everything that a flag can’t: you aren’t secure in your person, your house, your papers and effects. You are a forced plea or a gunshot away from ruin.

That system is harder to replace than a monument. It’s got no grommets hooking it to a pole, instead it’s woven into so much of our governments’ budgets, bolted down, shackled to our culture and media. But we can, as sure as we all wear masks to stop stray particles of pestilence.

Our lack of change is not down to inability. It is often not even a lack of will or of political disagreement, but of instinctive pushback. Take the Senate, where McConnell and the Republicans put already-cold milk into the cooling saucer and are now waiting for it to cool some more. They acknowledge a need for change, but enough of their members rely on being opposition that they can’t push a comprehensive bill.

The way to overcome this kind of nothing-by-default system is to use their pressure points. Qualified immunity, for one. Instead of their bill being a carrot for states that reform, it should be: states that do not reform will lose qualified immunity.

The argument that nobody in the Senate can make is that the officer that murdered George Floyd should not be subject to a lawsuit for it. Donald John Trump and some Republicans want to protect qualified immunity, then that’s the barrel to get them over and make them pay at least table stakes for it: reform to enable qualified immunity.

It’s a reasonable proposition: jurisdictions that make reasonable efforts to guard against civil rights violations by police should be given some greater measure of assurance as a result.

But that’s for this limited case. For the greater case, change means changing. Look for opportunities big and small to do differently tomorrow than what you did today.


In 18 weeks the nation can vote to change.

Categories
society

Bostock: What Does Sex Mean in Antidiscrimination?

The SCOTUS decided to recognize the law protecting employees from firing for discrimination on the bases of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The decision hinges on the meaning of sex in the statute banning discrimination on that basis.

The question arises, what does it mean to ban sex discrimination? And that’s what the court had to answer.

Imagine for a moment you are trying to hire a person to push buttons in your factory. The applicants all come in dressed in those big mascot costumes. Their names are all types of clouds, like Cumulonimbus and MicroAmazon. But, you, being of the false belief that women are better at pressing buttons, want to hire a woman for the job. So you try to find some way to decide one mascot is a woman, and hire that one.

But over the course of ten years, you never do find out who it is in that mascot suit pressing all those buttons. It remains a mystery.

That is what the Supreme Court decided. We all have to buy and wear mascot costumes. I, personally, will be getting a costume to look like a Supreme Court justice, so you’ll have to find some other idea. Sorry.

Anyway, the above situation is meant to elicit the basic idea of expression. Without expression of sex, there is no discrimination of sex, because nobody would know how to discriminate on that basis. This happens to be true for the other protections in Title VII, as well, though oftentimes race and sex are assumed on some apparent characteristics, ultimately it comes down to expression. And religion, of course, always relies on expression, as nobody knows what anyone truly believes and only knows what they espouse. Also, national origin, which relies on express documentation and perhaps an accent or knowing a lot about your home country.

Without expression of these characteristics, there is no basis to discriminate. One could still be a bigot without, as in the example trying to hire the mascot with a woman inside, but one would never know if one was a successful bigot. And, besides, unsuccessful bigotry still violates the law against discrimination. If you fire someone because you believe they are one of those things, even if they aren’t, that’s still discriminatory.

Okay. So once you arrive at the realization that what sex really means is expression of sex, what is that? People don’t generally go around introducing themselves: “Hi, I’m Silver Lining and although I am dressed as a rubber chicken, I’m actually biologically female.” People almost never say what sex they are. Think about it, when was the last time you said aloud what sex you are? (And no cheating and saying it right now!)

Expression of sex, your social sexual identity, is based on some behaviors including how you dress, speak, your sexual orientation, the type of bicycle you ride, etc. Now, some people may express their social identity differently, by biting the heads or feet off the gummy bears first, for example. The court has to decide where to draw the line on what is a protected expression of sex, and what is just being a bit weird with your candy, dude.

And that analysis, which wasn’t really done in Bostock, probably comes down to commonality of a type of expression. That is, just because you express yourself in a unique way doesn’t mean it’s not protected. But is that expression of a type that is common to humans generally expressing their sex?


Anyway, the election is in nineteen weeks.

Categories
society

Realignment of Police Responsibilities

What passes for defund is really a mixture of policies around policing and other responsibilities. If the police have to be ready for a dozen different calls, they can’t be very prepared for any one of them. They have to be versatile, and that means giving up on specialization.

If you don’t know if the weather tomorrow will be rainy, snowy, or hot and sunny, when you go out you’ll need three different hats. Knowing the weather and dressing for it is a luxury that the police currently do not have, due to overloading them with too many different tasks.

Instead, realigning policing means:

  1. Police aren’t the first responder for as many situations.
  2. Police will often take on a supporting role, rather than lead.
  3. The police can specialize more as other organizations take over some of their current responsibilities. This should make the job of police safer and steadier.

The recent Black Lives Matter protests give a good working example for how policing should be reworked. Instead of having the police be the front-line response to protesting, communities could have folks employed specifically to coordinate and work with protests. The new function would be able to observe and listen to protesters without being the face of violence or force, and so that already would reduce tension.

Throughout the opioid crisis, police have had to administer anti-narcotic-shock drugs to revive people (though, many other community servants have also been put in that position). There needs to be a dedicated civic health response, which is something that requires healthcare reforms. Involving the police complicates the health response, because they have a duty to enforce the broken drug laws, and the drug users have good reasons to seek to avoid interacting with police.

The reimagining of policing is often about shifting the social landscape around policing so that the community is safer—and the police are part of the community that is made safer through changes.

These changes will go hand-in-hand with reducing criminalization, which will lead to lower institutionalized populations. Overpopulation of prisons and jails makes the job of guards harder, as density, per se, endangers the orderly operation of those facilities.


A longstanding hope of mine has been for self-driving cars to become a reality, so that police wouldn’t have to write traffic tickets. Black folks wouldn’t be pulled over as much, and policing would shift as a result. With self-driving cars, there will still be stops, but they will be nonpretextual. They will be situations where authorities get a call that something wrong happened. If the problem fits in the narrowed police jurisdiction, they would still respond. If it fits in to a different jurisdiction, then the other authority would respond. It’s among many reasons that government should be investing more heavily in accelerating self-driving.

That’s the kind of innovation that we need. The average duty of police is very much a rollercoaster of adrenaline and downtime. It’s not a healthy way to live—jumping from all-out to tumbleweeds and back. One of my hopes is that as policing is realigned, part of that shift will involve the police workers themselves gaining new light-duty roles for half of their work hours. Giving them more opportunities to experience the community in an engaged, non-aggressive task would do a lot to help heal their own traumas and smooth out that rollercoaster.


The election is in 20 weeks. Please do enroll to vote if you haven’t yet.

Categories
society

The Scientific Approach to Reducing Police Violence

I don’t know what combination of changes will reduce police violence. But I do know:

  1. It will take some combination of changes. One change will not do it.
  2. There is a way to find that combination of changes.
  3. Changes to policing will make the job of policing itself safer.

I can come up with plausible ideas, like an alternative to jury duty (those who are called in for it would skip their next jury call) where members of the public are tasked with hanging out with cops from their community (in a group of up to six (yeah, I know it won’t work at the moment due to the pandemic)) for an hour or two and engaging in some activity where they talk. Bowling or a shared meal, whatever.

But all the plausible ideas that might build connective tissue and bridge the gaps that have contributed to the problem, along with the other ideas, may sound fine, but will they actually work?

Have the federal government pass a law. The law will condition existing funds or new funds to communities that try some change that is intended to reduce policing problems. Think of it like opportunity zones, but without all the greedheads twisting it to only enrich themselves.

Anyway, if you have 500 municipalities with significant data available across the country, and they all try some changes, some of those will yield what at least smells like progress. And then those changes can be adopted in other localities, and sooner or later we’ll find some things that help.

It’s the scientific method, applied to a problem in the real world!

Now the changes can’t be anything. Having all police wear green shoelaces isn’t (or would it?) going to make the nut. There would need to be some reasonable review process for developing and vetting the ideas. Possibly—depending on the change—an ethics review (like the above idea of conscripting civvies to hang out with cops—is that a kosher use of their time?).

But one plausible prediction is that a good portion of places that do make some change under such a program would see positive results. That is to say, sometimes doing something visible and meaningful is enough to change the attitudes that have long-persisted and wrought harm. Not always, but sometimes. Even if it’s just wearing green shoelaces.

Set that aside, as it could be temporary. But even accounting for a kind of social placebo effect, some places will make changes that have a bigger effect than that. And we can replicate. And we can mutate the changes to see if we can get a stronger effect.

Or we can wait for the next act of violence and throw up our hands again and feel fucking impotent and dread hearing from the right-wingers who want to blame anything but the broken fucking record of the system that is incapable of change.

Other cities haven’t waited. There were diamonds in the rough of these protests, cities that have better records currently. The rest should emulate the ones who get it right.


Given the plague is still around, local governments should be coordinating with protesters more closely to both avoid these horrid incidents of violence by police against peaceful protests and to minimize the opportunity of transmission of a deadly disease.


The election is in 21-ish weeks. You should register to vote! You should plan to vote! You should close your eyes and visualize yourself voting! You should go to the mirror and look yourself in the eyes and say, “I’m gonna vote.”