Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Whatever You Do, Please Don't Hurt Charlie Hebdo's Feelings

It's almost impossible to overstate how surreal this is:
But let's try to see how we've come to this very strange moment.  Recall that the case against Charlie Hebdo is that the magazine published material highly likely to make Muslims feel oppressed, humiliated, and unwelcome in their own country.  Maybe the magazine went out of its way to make Muslims feel this way, maybe it simply acted with extreme disregard for their feelings.

The most coherent defense of Charlie Hebdo—there are many, many incoherent defenses, as I have learned from Caleb Crain's retweets—is that the magazine was an equal-opportunity offender, that it was by and large taking on powerful people and institutions, and that when it occasionally commented on Muslims it did so with the same irreverence and disregard for personal feelings that it applied to all of its targets.  People should toughen up, a free society demands thick skins.

Now Dominique Sopo's point is that people who have criticized Charlie Hebdo should be ashamed of themselves, because when you express a negative view of someone, you do deep and terrible harm—you kill him a second time.  To criticize a publication is to go beyond the pale.  There are feelings at stake here!  Maybe you have a legal right to say something bad about Charlie Hebdo, but you have no moral right to do so.

This seems to me to be a highly bizarre thing to say at a gala honoring Charlie Hebdo.  It is in fact the most explicit criticism of Charlie Hebdo's values that I have seen anyone make.  I wonder if the crowd booed him off the stage.

Self-Driving Data

You may have seen a feature on the New York Times website, part of its "Upshot" section.  Based on recent research, the feature allows you to select a county and then see the effect of that county on the children who grow up there.  My own county, Kings County in New York, is apparently fairly bad for poor children and fairly good for rich children.  (This isn't universally true, as you might expect.  There are counties that are far better for poor children than for rich children.  A good example is Montgomery County, Maryland, which is part of the D.C. metro area.)

But you've got to be very careful when you are dealing with "data-driven" analysis.  And in this case, the data are highly misleading.  The key is something that was divulged in an accompanying article, which assesses why the data seem to indicate that Manhattan is a bad place to grow up at all income levels (but especially for affluent children):

A third factor is marriage, which clearly plays a role in the Manhattan effect. Children who grow up there are less likely to marry, at least by age 30 and probably over all, than similar children elsewhere. About one-third of the income penalty stems from the fact that Manhattan children are more likely to be living without another adult in their late 20s, and of course a second adult often bring a second income. (Our analysis measures household income.)

Aha!  The study looks at household income, and so the timing of marriage affects the conclusion.  Imagine two counties.  In one, children grow up to have average per capita income of $25,000.  In the other, they grow up to have average per capita income of $45,000.  But in the first county, virtually all children are married by the age of 25.  In the second county, virtually no one marries by the age of 25.  The first county, the one in which children end up with vastly lower per capita income, will appear to bestow somewhat better economic outcomes on children who grow up there (at least, by age 25).  They will have household income of ~$50,000, whereas in the other county the comparable number will be ~$45,000.

This may go a long way to explaining something odd about the data:  some of the best counties seem to be extremely rural.  There is a big swath of blue (which is the "good" color) through the plains states, out in counties with miniscule populations.  But the big cities out there—Omaha, Minneapolis, and so forth—are not particularly "good."  There's something about being extremely rural that seems to help.  And the answer may very well be that people get married much younger in those rural counties.

And this is one of the things that gets me about the fetishization of "data-driven" approaches to public policy.  How many people who play around with that map will fail to understand that the results are being driven to a significant degree by marriage rates?  And how many of them will reach false conclusions about the world based on that ignorance?  And (here is the crucial part) how many of them will congratulate themselves for being conversant with the data, for basing their views on "scientific evidence"?  Put something in the right format, and publish it on a reputable website, and just about everyone will believe it.  And not just believe it—attribute a high degree of confidence to it, because quantitative approaches are good and qualitative approaches are bad!  It's frustrating and obnoxious beyond measure.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

When Should We Brand People As Immoral?

Having written a rather long post about why I think reasonable people can disagree about how praiseworthy Charlie Hebdo is, I want to make a more general point about how we think about social norms.

Alan believes something like:  "It is immoral not to attend the PEN gala in honor of Charlie Hebdo."  Well, actually, that's not quite right.  Alan himself won't be in attendance, but presumably he isn't pointing the finger of blame at himself.  Why not?  Because he wasn't invited.

Fair enough.  Maybe Alan believes:  "It is immoral not to attend the PEN gala if you were invited."  But Caleb Crain probably was invited, and yet won't attend.  Why not?  Because he didn't read the email from PEN that contained the invitation.  (He may have deleted it without thought, or he may have unsubscribed from the list long ago.  We can't be certain.)

And yet Alan isn't pointing the finger of blame at Crain, either.  Why not?  Isn't there some kind of moral obligation to attend?

Apparently not.  It is fine not to attend the gala for reasons of convenience.  So let's try again.  "It is immoral not to attend the PEN gala if your reason for not attending is a matter of conscience."

Now this might seem bizarre, since the more natural approach might be to respect people's conscientious beliefs, at least where those beliefs are within the bounds of reason and decency.

But maybe we can explain it this way.  Alan has considered the matter, and he has decided that there can be no two opinions on whether Charlie Hebdo did enough to avoid humiliating Muslims.  So in other words, he disagrees with my previous blog post.  He doesn't think any reasonable person could possibly take the view that Charlie Hebdo crossed the line in its humiliation of Muslims.  And since no reasonable person could take that view, and the PEN dissenters are reasonable people, Alan concludes that darker motives are at play.  Hence the immorality of their stance, and hence the efforts of people like Caleb Crain to shame the dissenters for following the dictates of their consciences.

I suppose this makes sense.  Imagine a Catholic nun who sheltered Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide.  As a result of this bravery, the nun has been invited to attend a gala in honor of social justice.  The nun finds out that the gala intends to honor an abortion rights group that is fighting for on-demand, publicly-funded abortions.  The nun decides not to attend the gala, observing that according to her religious and moral beliefs, abortion is murder.  What I think Alan would say is something like, "Look, this nun is clearly committing an immoral act by declining to attend the gala."

Or imagine an animal rights activist who has been invited to a gala.  When she discovers that the gala will honor an organization dedicated to bringing American-style factory farming to the developing world, the animal rights activist declines to attend.  Alan might say, "Look, there are millions of people starving.  Are you really going to try to deny the developing world the agricultural tools that it needs to feed itself?  You are immoral for declining to attend the gala."

Or maybe not.  Maybe Alan would say that reasonable people can disagree about the morality of abortion, or factory farming, but not about the morality of humiliating Muslims.  I don't know.

My own opinion is that it makes no sense to attack people for taking a principled view on the question of whether Charlie Hebdo crossed the line when it repeatedly humiliated and provoked Muslims.  Do we really think there are no two legitimate opinions on this question?  Do we really want to embrace a kind of forced unanimity on this question, by shaming people whose views differ from our own?  Is it really morally mandatory to honor a publication that you believe went out of its way to humiliate a vulnerable and much-put-upon minority?

Lawyers who read this blog may recall the case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the famous "flag-salute" case.  The question was whether students could be required to salute the American flag.  (The students who declined to salute were Jehovah's Witnesses who had principled objections to saluting the flag.)  Of course the dispute was about whether the government could legally compel students to salute the flag, and the Court determined that it could not.  But it strikes me that when political and moral issues are sufficiently complicated that reasonable people can disagree, it is as wrong to force people to salute Charlie Hebdo as it is to force them to salute a flag.  And that doesn't just apply to legal coercion, it applies to public shaming and accusations of immorality as well.  If you think Charlie Hebdo stayed on the right side of the line, then say so.  But does it really make sense to engage in a campaign of public shaming of the dissenters?  Does it make sense to try to intimidate them into not expressing their views?  To question their morality in public?

I think Caleb Crain and Alan bear a heavy burden if they want to demonstrate that it's immoral to decline to attend the gala for reasons of conscience.  They need to show, not just that Charlie Hebdo was on the right side of the line, but that this is so obvious that no reasonable person could take the opposite view.  I don't think they've met that burden.  I don't think they've come close.

[So to be clear about what I believe:  It is completely fine to express the view that Charlie Hebdo was on the right side of the line, if that is what you believe.  But I don't think makes much sense to ask, "Were the dissenters right to decline to attend the gala?"  That question is not really at issue on these facts.  Of course they were right to do what their consciences told them to do—how could any reasonable person think otherwise?  If you think they deserve to be criticized, it is because you believe this issue is so clear-cut that there are no two reasonable opinions, and therefore their consciences don't deserve anyone's respect.  In  other words, you want to exclude the view that Charlie Hebdo crossed the line from reasoned debate.  You believe that in this discussion there are no meaningful nuances, gray areas, or difficult questions.  This is a very hard argument to accept.]

Charlie Hebdo and Drawing Lines

The tort system is something that I hadn't thought much about before I took a class in law and economics.  For those who aren't as familiar, tort law concerns the ability of an injured person to bring a lawsuit against the responsible party, both for recompense and in some cases for punitive damages.

Every first-year law student in the United States takes a class on torts.  The basic concept is so obvious that it barely needs to be stated:  if you make it expensive to cause harm to other people, then you will induce potential harm-doers to change their behavior so as to avoid harm.  A less obvious point, though, is that we sometimes decline to impose liability, not because the behavior is harmless, but because the injured party is in a better position to avoid the harm.  This is sometimes encapsulated in the term "lowest-cost avoider," that is, the person who can avoid the harm at the lowest overall cost.

Let's say a train has hit a person and injured him.  But he wasn't at a crosswalk or train station, he was walking along the tracks in the middle of nowhere.  Although the railroad has done him injury, we are inclined to say that it is really his negligence that has caused the harm.  (But note that this is a legal conclusion, not a statement of fact.  We don't derive these things out of thin air, we define them to accomplish social goals.)  We could theoretically require the railroad to take steps to ensure that their trains don't hit people in the middle of nowhere.  But that might require very expensive measures, such as running trains at a low speed even in the open country (making trains uncompetitive as a method of transportation).  Instead we simply deny recovery for people injured in these circumstances.  (It would be a different story if the railroad had some sort of culpability, for instance if it built its tracks along a pre-existing walking path.  It might also be a different story if the railroad could cheaply prevent people from walking along its tracks.)

So now we come to Charlie Hebdo and its treatment of Muslims.  One might ask:  does Charlie Hebdo bear any responsibility for reducing the harm that it causes when it publishes its cartoons?

As a legal matter, of course, our tradition is that free expression trumps the rights of other people (though of course, remember the Parades Commission and its restrictions on where Orangemen can march).

But in terms of social norms, I think things are more complicated.  We might ask people to express their ideas in the lowest-harm manner possible, or at least to take harm into account when expressing their ideas.  So for instance, imagine that Charlie Hebdo has submitted an ad to be posted in the Paris metro.  And imagine that the metro authorities have come to Charlie Hebdo and said, "Look, your poster is obviously well-intentioned, but by some freak accident it looks a lot like our emergency exit signs, and people who can't read French could be confused.  This could be very dangerous in an emergency situation.  Could you please consider submitting a different advertisement for us to post?"

As with the railroad example, we might ask how to allocate responsibility for the potential harm that might occur from Charlie Hebdo's means of expressing itself.  On the one hand, we might say that Charlie Hebdo is the lowest-cost avoider, because surely it can come up with advertisements that won't confuse people.  On the other hand, we might say that in a free society, it's always the responsibility of the reader to do the necessary work of understanding the poster and deriving its true intent (to advertise the publication, not to indicate an emergency exit).  People who misread Charlie Hebdo's expression shouldn't be heard to complain about the harm that it causes them.  They are like people walking alongside railroads:  they do so at their own risk.

I can respect this point of view.  But I have to ask:  doesn't the opposite point of view also have some merit?  After all, not everyone has the time or the capacity to delve into Charlie Hebdo's true intentions in posting the advertisement.  To a lot of people, it looks just like an emergency exit sign.  And if there is a fire or other emergency, people could incur a tremendous amount of harm if they can't find the real exits quickly.  Shouldn't Charlie Hebdo find another way to advertise itself?  Maybe it should be legally permitted to publish the advertisements, and even to compel the metro to post them.  But is it really moral for it to do so, knowing the potential harm that could be done?

And the same goes for the harm that comes, not from confusing people about the location of emergency exits, but rather from causing feelings of humiliation and degradation.  We don't ask comedians or essayists or cartoonists to minimize emotional harm when they do their work—we understand that this would basically eliminate their ability to express their ideas.  (We don't ask railroads to run their trains at 10 m.p.h., for essentially the same reason.)  But we do ask them to take emotional harm into account.  A comedian who uses the word "nigger" had better do so with sensitivity and discretion, or we will not hesitate to express our disapproval.  We don't ask black people to "get over it," we don't treat them like people who walk along railroad tracks.

Now I would be the first to say that reasonable people can disagree on where to draw the line.  PETA famously uses scantily-clad women in its animal-rights campaigns, not because objectifying women has anything to do with animal rights, but because the controversy inevitably attracts much more attention than the campaigns otherwise would.  I think a reasonable person could say that this approach is morally questionable (though, I repeat, legally protected).  We don't give PETA a free pass merely because its mode of expression helps it to reach a larger audience.

Or maybe we do.  Again, I'm not dogmatic about where to draw the line.  My point is just that there is a line, and that Charlie Hebdo at the very least flirted with that line.  Reasonable people can disagree about just how far over the line Charlie Hebdo may or may not have gone.  But I don't think it makes sense to say that Charlie Hebdo is automatically exempt from all such criticism, by virtue of its status as a non-racist publication (assuming that to be the case).  When Muslims face near-constant harassment, humiliation, and discrimination, I think it's fair to ask whether Charlie Hebdo really needed to pour salt in the wounds.  When you have the power to hurt people, you have the responsibility not just to avoid outright racism, but to be careful and thoughtful about how you deploy your power.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Smoke Signals

And now for something completely different.

My parents during the 1990s worked at a large public hospital.  At some point (I don't know when) the hospital banned smoking indoors.  This was obviously a sensible policy.  However, it had the odd result that the entrance to the hospital was always surrounded by a thick cloud of second-hand cigarette smoke.  You couldn't get into or out of the hospital without running the gantlet.  Patients, doctors, nurses…  it seemed that everyone smoked, and there was always a crowd around the door, even in bad weather.

The lesson is more general.  When you banish an activity from one area, you often find it popping up in another area.  And this is what I think has happened with flirtation/hitting on women.  Once upon a time, men felt entitled to hit on women just about everywhere.  Just like smoking in a hospital, this was terrible.  There was no space in which women could be treated like professionals.  We've made a lot of progress, though of course there is still room for improvement.

But as we've pushed flirting out of professional life, it has become more concentrated in the places where it is still permitted.  And the result is that it has become an annoyance in a variety of surprising places.  Women complain about being hit on in the gym and on the subway.  (I thought Matt Walker had written a blog post about this, but the only one I could find was this one, which doesn't indicate any problem with subway flirtation.)  I wouldn't have thought it was socially unacceptable to hit on someone in a gym!  (I'm guessing gay guys are still okay with gym flirtation, but maybe I'm engaging in hurtful stereotypes.)  I guess it makes sense.  Just like the annoying clouds of smoke surrounding the hospital entrance, flirting must be overwhelming and gross when it is constant and unrelenting.

Presumably the one place where it's still okay to hit on a woman is in a bar.  But even this can be really obnoxious, so I wonder if our culture is inexorably driving toward internet dating as the primary or even exclusive venue for flirtation.

Now I should say a word about the manner of flirtation.  Mild flirtation, like smiling at a woman (not leering, just smiling) is probably still okay in the gym or on the subway.  And somewhat more aggressive flirting is probably still okay in a bar.  Of course, you've got to read her body language, and your ability to do so might be impaired when you are drunk.

But so when it comes to unambiguous indications of interest, I think we are probably moving to an equilibrium in which a woman has to opt in to being hit on, for instance by signing onto a dating website or an app like Tinder.  And probably this is a good thing, like the elimination of cigarettes from pretty much everywhere people go.  (I'm certainly happy that the default presumption has switched to:  if you're creating cigarette smoke around other people, you're an asshole.)  But it's a pretty remarkable cultural shift nonetheless, and I wonder what will come of it.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Boycotting the Orangemen

As I waited for the subway today, I realized something that might explain why I feel so strongly about the Charlie Hebdo/PEN discussion.  I'm going to write a few more posts dealing with particular issues, and some of those posts will try to map things out in detail.  This is a higher-level post that tries to use an analogy to draw out the key issues.

In Northern Ireland, there is an institution called the Orange Order, a sort of social/cultural organization representing Northern Ireland's Protestant community.  Under the auspices of the Orange Order, Protestants periodically hold marches, most notably on July 12.  Why July 12?  That is the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, in which Protestant William of Orange (hence the name) defeated Catholic James II.  The history is very complicated and I'm no expert on it, but suffice it to say that William's victory helped ensure that British rule in Ireland would continue for more than two centuries, a time period marked by brutal oppression, the Great Famine, and cultural displacement, including the near-total elimination of the Irish language.  And a time period dominated by the Protestant "ascendency" in Ireland, which is to say, political and economic supremacy.  So in other words, today the battle is celebrated by the Protestants and much-regretted by the Catholics.  And remember, we are talking about Northern Ireland, which to this day is ruled by the United Kingdom.  The Irish achieved limited self-governance in 1922 and complete independence in 1937.  But that was the Republic of Ireland.  In the North, British rule has never ended.  So for the Catholics in Northern Ireland, you can turn that "two centuries" of British rule into "three centuries, and counting."

Now what's interesting is that the Orangemen specifically like to march through Catholic neighborhoods.  They like to give their Catholic neighbors a little reminder of what happened in 1690, and of how things shook out after that.  They bang drums and sing songs and generally do everything they can to make the Catholics feel humiliated and downtrodden.  In past decades they were permitted to march where they liked.  Today their free-speech rights are violated by the Parades Commission, which puts limits on their ability to march through Catholic neighborhoods.

In real life, there is almost always violence accompanying these marches.  Certainly rocks will be thrown, but petrol bombs (what Americans would call "Molotov cocktails") are also popular.  You can get a flavor here.

Now imagine, counterfactually, that during one of these marches, a large bomb goes off, killing twelve Orangemen.  A Republican terrorist group takes "credit."  (By "Republican" I mean that the group supports splitting from the United Kingdom and joining the Republic of Ireland.  We can assume that the members of the terrorist group are Catholic, in terms of ethnic identity though not necessarily in terms of devout belief.)  And then, the next year, the Orange Order marches again, despite renewed threats from the Republican terrorist group.

And so our analogy is this.  PEN decides to honor the Orange Order for its courage in continuing to express itself in the face of terrorist violence.  PEN invites me, James, to attend the ceremony.  (Remember, this is a hypothetical, suspend your disbelief.)  I decline to attend, specifically because PEN is honoring the Orange Order.

At this point, Alan and Caleb Crain and Robert McLiam Wilson would presumably lash out at me.  And they would have a seemingly airtight case that my behavior is immoral.  Consider the facts:

1.  There is no question that when the Orangemen march, they are expressing freedom of expression, what in the U.S. we would call "First Amendment rights."

2.  There is no question that they are running grave risks to do so.  Not only could they die in a large-scale attack like the bombing that killed 12 of them, they could also be injured or killed in the more ordinary violence that they encounter when they march through Catholic neighborhoods.

3.  If they hadn't marched, they would have "let the terrorists win."  But they did march—courageously.

4.  As Caleb Crain might point out, if you take the time to understand their politics, you will find that there is no evidence whatsoever that they are racist.  Northern Ireland is 98.2% white, and (as far as I know) the Orangemen have no argument with the country's non-white residents as such.

5.  Even if they're not racists, the Orangemen might seem like complete assholes.  But to reach that judgment, you would have to have a deep understanding of North Irish history, culture, politics, etc.  Since I (James) don't have that understanding, I'm not entitled to form an opinion about the Orangemen.  Anyway, it's important to note that alongside their Catholic-bashing, the Orangemen stand up for all kinds of good things, like community involvement.  And, not to cast aspersions on James's view of women, but it just so happens that abortion is legal in the United Kingdom, but not the Republic of Ireland.  So if the Orangemen lose the fight, then a lot of North Irish women will be the victims.

6.  It is true that the Orangemen go out of their way to offend Catholics.  But that's the whole point!  In a free country you should be permitted to offend.  And a lot of their expression would have less meaning if it weren't for its offensiveness.  (Lording it over the Catholics is a major reason they march in the first place.  Take that away, and the expression loses its "punch.")  Please note that the PEN award does not relate to the content of the Orangemen's expression.  Rather, the award relates purely to their courage in the face of violence.  And their physical courage is beyond question.  And in this connection, note that the big thing the Orangemen want to accomplish is to remind the Catholics of the events of July 12, 1690.  That is, they want to teach a history lesson (or at least, give a refresher course).  I can picture the tweets.  How can historical fact be offensive?!?  What's next, does James want to get rid of history classes?!?!?  We see the kind of scum we're dealing with here, with this anti-education James character.

7.  So in "boycotting" the PEN award (note the etymology), I am performing an immoral act.  I am failing to honor a courageous group that isn't racist.  And per Alan, in these circumstances I should be branded "immoral."  Quod erat demonstrandum.

I suspect that Alan will say that the Orangemen are somehow worse than Charlie Hebdo, because their goal is to make Catholics feel bad.  I wonder if Alan will then embrace the doctrine of the double effect.  By which I mean, there is little question that Charlie Hebdo set out to offend Muslims to the greatest extent possible—to a much greater extent than would be necessary to express the same ideas.  But, as with the Orangemen, the offense is the point.  Without the offense, the expression loses its flavor.  With the Orangemen, the offense is the goal.  (Although, not entirely.  The Orangemen do march through Protestant neighborhoods, too, where there is no one to offend.  It's mixed, as reality always is.)  With Charlie Hebdo, the offense is presumably instrumental:  Charlie Hebdo wants to get attention and provoke outrage.  (But again, not entirely.  Are we really to believe that Charlie Hebdo never offended Muslims just for the sake of offending Muslims?  And isn't that exactly what the Orangemen do to Catholics?)

In any event the effect is much the same:  to make Catholics (Muslims) feel humiliated and unwelcome in their own country.  So we would need a doctrine like the doctrine of the double effect to separate the two.

I am not saying that Charlie Hebdo is evil.  (I don't think the Orangemen are evil either.)  I just don't think they're particularly deserving of being honored for their efforts to humiliate and degrade Muslims.  I think they are (maybe unwittingly) joined in a continent-wide fight to alienate and radicalize Muslims.  They didn't deserve to die.  But not everyone who has a right to life (which is everyone) gets feted at literary galas.  That honor should be reserved for people who aren't consciously making downtrodden people even more miserable, making the world a worse place.

(I almost forgot to mention:  my ancestors were Irish Catholic.  When they fled Ireland, they did it on the notorious "coffin ships" that went to Canada during the Great Famine.  (The ships to the U.S. were regulated and were therefore safer but marginally more expensive.  If you were on a ship to Canada, it's because you were truly desperate.)   When I see pictures of Orangemen I see people who like to celebrate my ancestors' misery, who like to shove it in our faces and remind us that we are shit.  I wouldn't bomb them but I damn sure wouldn't be caught at a fucking party in their honor.  And I'm several generations removed from the events in question.  I can't imagine how Muslims feel when they're exposed to the same kind of humiliation on a daily basis.)

(And if Caleb Crain tried to shame me on Twitter for refusing to honor the Orangemen, and Alan took to the comments section of my blog to call me immoral, I would flip my shit.)