Monday, June 08, 2020

Listening: On "Defund the Police"...

Admit it, no matter what your political inclination, the first time you heard this slogan, it sounds like advocating for anarchy. It's definitely inflammatory. So, why are people saying this? Is this just crazed protestors who hate the police and want to create an every-man-for-himself society?
I decided to actually listen to my more liberal friends and also seek out other informed sources of information, and here's what I understand is actually being said:

What if, when you dialed 911, it was always a police officer who responded? If there was a fire, the police would have to be equipped and trained to put out the fire. If there was a medical emergency, the police would have to keep you alive and get you to the hospital. And of course, if there was a crime in progress or evidence to collect and analyze, the police would also have to be prepared for that.

What you have is a lot of police, who have to be trained, equipped, and skilled at addressing an enormous variety of emergency situations, and of course, when the police show up, the stakes are high. So, one obvious way to help the situation is to specialize: you create a fire department, using some of the budget that was previously allocated for police response to emergencies. The fire department can be uniquely equipped and trained to deal with fires. Their trucks carry hoses and ladders. What's more: firemen don't carry guns and handcuffs: no one is afraid that a fireman is going to arrest you, and firemen don't have to worry about people responding in fear or violently to their presence, thinking they might be arrested or worse. If the firemen encounter a situation that calls for police, then they can call the police, but in general, it's more efficient for police to deal with crime, and firemen to deal with fires.

Extend that logic to medical situations, and you get EMTs and paramedics with ambulances.

And that's where we are today. But is that enough? Is that even what we had in the past? What situations are police responding to that could be better (and more cost effectively) handled by another specialty under most circumstances? What about adding social workers, who are uniquely trained, equipped, and empowered to deal with situations such as domestic violence, mental illness, and drug addiction? That seems like an obvious step. What institutions can we invest in, other than courts and jails, that can effectively prevent, reduce, and address crime and other social issues?
This is what is meant by the phrase "defund the police". Could they have picked a less sensational slogan? Maybe, but now they have your attention, and they didn't have your attention before with the other slogans and messaging on this topic.

Another aspect of this issue is "bad apples". It's common for people who are defending the status quo of police accountability (and lack thereof) in our society to say, "there are a few bad apples, but there is no systemic problem". Remember when there were "a few bad apples" in the Catholic Church? Just a few child molesters, that's all. What was the Catholic Church doing when it became aware of child abuse? It was covering up their crimes, paying off their victims in exchange for silence, and moving the "bad apples" around to different locations, where no one suspected their pattern of behavior. The bad apples were spoiling the whole barrel, and it was rotten. It needed to be reformed. Guess what's happening with police? The exact same thing. They are protected by their colleagues and supervisors and unions. They call them "gypsy cops". When someone tries to hold them accountable, they quit or get fired and are hired by another precinct without scrutiny.

If there was a systemic problem with sexual molestation in the Catholic church, then there is a systemic problem with abuse of power, and especially abuse of power towards blacks, in the police force.

There are more dimensions to this, such as the militarization of police departments that is on display in cities around the country right now, deployed with riot gear and armored vehicles against protestors. They form up a skirmish line, lob tear gas, and shoot pepper spray, rubber bullets and flash bangs into the crowd. Is that really the most effective way to prevent riots and vandalism? I think we can do better.

Monday, February 17, 2020

What Facebook Is For

Editorial note:
Remember blogs?  I still have a blog, though it's been a bit neglected.

I originally wrote this post several months ago, but at the time I decided not to post it. The particular events that prompted its composition were still a fresh wound, and I did not wish to offend anyone by appearing to single them out for poor behavior.  I recently re-discovered this post as a draft on my blog, and decided to post it now (after some polishing).  It's still just as relevant, and has lost the edge it would have had at the time of original writing.

Dear friends and family,

The purpose of Facebook is to stay in touch with the personal lives of your friends and family.  (Astounding, I know.)  In general, Facebook is not for posting anything that is not your own creation or your personal analysis of someone else's creation that is personally meaningful to you.  It is never helpful to post or amplify divisive content.

If you have something to say about a divisive political issue, say it in your own words or not at all. Don't simply re-post someone else's hot take.

Putting it in your own words will help you to remember that you are responsible for how what you share affects those who will see it.  It also makes it a part of your story; your perspective, and others will feel more comfortable engaging constructively with you about your perspective on the issue, even if they have a different perspective.

Examples of divisive content:
  • It presents an issue without nuance, or lumps unrelated issues together. 
  • It characterizes an entire class of people for ridicule.  
  • It portrays a fringe opposing viewpoint as the mainstream for the opposition.
  • It seems too "good" to be true.
The News
It is acceptable to occasionally share news articles from reputable journalistic sources on Facebook, as long as you take the time to introduce the article to your friends and family, showing why the content is personally important to you.  Posting links to articles without personal context turns Facebook into a slanted, unreliable news source.

Facebook is inherently an unreliable source of news.  At best, it is an echo chamber for views like your own.  Even if you have a diverse set of friends, Facebook's algorithm is always trying to find content that it expects you will engage with positively.  If you want to be informed about the news, you should seek out a diverse collection of publications that demonstrate journalistic integrity.  You might have to pay to subscribe to some of them, but it might also be worth it.

It is occasionally acceptable to use Facebook to keep your friends and family up-to-date on a breaking relevant local issue that is not being widely covered. As an example of this, my sister recently posted a series of news updates about a teacher's strike that she participated in.  The news articles, accompanied by her own personal pictures and stories, allowed us to be informed as to what was happening day-to-day, and what her personal experiences were like, since our own local and national publications did not cover the story in as much detail.

Foreign and domestic influence campaigns
There are of course many "Pages" on Facebook that churn out divisive content.  Many of these pages are fronts for foreign interference in elections.  The 2016 U.S. elections are a famous example of this, but Russia in particular has been behind online astroturf campaigns in dozens of countries over several years, with the strategy of both generating content under false identities (and fake news), and of influencing real people into espousing the polarizing positions and rhetoric generated by their content farms.  Typically they pick an issue and then post content on the extreme end of both sides of the issue's spectrum (differently slanted content on different pages, obviously), sewing distrust and driving people away from one another. In addition to foreign influence, there are also domestic organizations whose goal is to polarize our politics (including some financed directly by domestic political campaigns).  If you don't know who runs the page behind the content, don't re-share it.  Polarizing pages will often intersperse reasonable or funny memes among their extreme content, and you could unwittingly boost their profile by sharing seemingly innocuous memes.

Polarizing content degrades public discourse, and must be opposed, regardless of whose side of what political spectrum it takes.

If you think you're "winning" by ridicule, you are in fact losing.

Before you post something to Facebook, ask yourself:
  • Did I write an introduction explaining how this is personally important to me?  Will this deepen my relationship with my friends and family?
  • Is this true?  Is it from a respected source?  Is it written in a slanted way?  Is there a higher quality article on this topic elsewhere that I could post instead? (Please search to find out.)
  • Does this respect others, especially those who honestly disagree with me on this topic?  Will it generate meaningful discussion, or alienation?