Thursday, December 01, 2016

No pain, no gain

Its pretty much a basic rule of online life not to read the comments.  Whether its trolls who somehow find time to comment on millions of hours YouTube videos or determined efforts by Russian and American military and corporate social media specialists to influence foreign and domestic populations, its very likely that if you look at the comments on pretty much any post you'll just into a fight.

What makes comments so particularly infuriating is that there are just so many people who are wrong, and they all show up with carefully-crafted talking points.  I say this without irony, because of course the people on the other side of the argument - the ones who you disagree with - believe you're showing up with predetermined and carefully crafted talking points.

And yet, we now, with the last US election, have a pretty good sense of what's happening in these comments.  We can start to see the sociological outlines.

Consider the gun control issue.  Or more precisely, consider the issue of the CEO of a multinational retail company who has among other things on his to-do list must now worry about the following two issues:

  1. Terrorists might come into one of his stores in Paris or Milwaukee and shoot the place up and kill people.  This may or may not happen and is highly unlikely in any given time-slice, but it is scary and could happen, obviously, because it has happened elsewhere.  It hasn't specifically to his stores, but to other stores that just happened to be in the way.  He doesn't know of "credible threats" specifically targeting his business, but there are crazy people with intent to kill out there, and they might try something in one of his many thousands of stores.  
  2. Clueless people allowed to carry guns around who aren't required to take a safety test or follow even the most basic safe-handling practices, and who while they are statutorily permitted to conceal weapons can pretty much just pull the damn things out and flail them around whenever they want to.  And who may, as a result, shoot themselves or others, and who have actually shot themselves or others.
Now from a risk-management standpoint, what's the proper concern?  We pay police forces and militaries to try to manage the risk of terrorism and criminal gangs.  We may not think they're doing a good enough job, but by most measures the world in general is safer than it was 50 years ago.  Crime is down in the US; most measures of armed conflict, including terrorism, show significant decreases; and even civil and racial strife in the wealthy countries of the west is down dramatically from what it was in the 60s.  There are no Baader-Meinhoff or Red Brigades/Gladio operations happening in major cities.  Gang violence, while horrific, is steady or down over the last 20 years.  Even now, with enough racial unrest to apparently incite White America to vote for an unrepentant bigot, we're just not seeing the kind of cop shootings we saw in the 60s and the 70s in the US.  

That may be entirely because lead was phased out of gasoline and everywhere else in the 70s.  That may seem like a ridiculous statement, its been a widely-known and well-studied fact that lead exposure reduces inhibitions and increases asocial tendencies; I wrote a post about it a couple of years ago.  LE may want to claim credit for the lower crime rate, and certainly there's a plausible case to be made that somehow more cops on the street reduced crime.  But its also the case that if you remove a toxin from the environment that's known to cause rage and other forms of anti-social behavior, you're just likely to get less anti-social behavior.  

So back to the CEO: What do you do?  On the one hand, there's the the threat of terrorism and criminal gangs.  You can't stop those people; you need the resources of an entire society to stop those people.  Jesus even the vast quantities of armaments and surveillance available to the largest police power in the world can't stop them.  So that's not a risk you can manage.  On the other hand, you've got people carrying guns everywhere, and actually shooting each other (and themselves) accidentally.  And that's actually happened, mind you - the terrorist attack on your stores is a threat, one you cant do much about, and while its real its small.  The clueless guy with a gun who shoots himself in your store: That's actually happened.

So what do you do?  As the CEO, you politely ask people not to bring guns into your store.  Same as Starbucks, by the way: Please don't bring gun into the store, because it scares people and the damn thing might go off.

And that's where the comments come in, because you're then the target of people who live in suburbs far away from crime who are convinced that having a gun saved their lives, or who are convinced that if they don't have a gun they're in danger.  

Now why would they think that?  What in modern American life would persuade someone who lives in a racially and economically homogenous neighborhood that their lives are in danger?  These people drive the same freeways as everyone else, when the danger is much higher from cell phones than terrorists and gangs.  They don't go anywhere more dangerous than the freeway, frankly.  Many of them don't even exercise anywhere dangerous; they go to gyms, or national parks, which are just as homogenous as their neighborhoods.  So they're not habitually in the sort of environments where they believe they'd run into trouble - they're keeping themselves off the racial and economic seams, as it were, that might lead to conflict.  They don't live on the South Side of Chicago or Hunters Point.  They don't go to bars or dance clubs and they wouldn't be caught dead eating ethnic food.  So where's the danger that requires them to be armed against any eventuality?

There is none.  Or rather, the danger is so small that it doesn't require they spend $1000 on a gun and carry it around with them.  

An odd thing will happen if you ask these people if they've ever been in danger: They'll tell you they have been.  They'll tell you they were once out on a lonely road in the middle of the night, or they were walking down the street and saw some gangsters.  Here's how these stories generally go: 

An African-American man was approaching from down the street, and it was 10PM.  He had his hood up and appeared to be fiddling with something in his hand.  I put my hand on my gun, which I keep in a shoulder holster, and made eye contact.  I nodded carefully to indicate that if he tried anything I'd shoot him.  He nodded carefully at me and crossed the street.  I breathed a sigh of relief because I'd scared the thug away, and continued on about my business, convinced that the gun had saved me.

That isn't to say that there aren't people who've been saved by carrying a gun, because there are lots of those stories too.  But they're far fewer than the people who've been accidentally or intentionally shot by the clueless.  In the case of the dominant story though - the person who for whatever reason, I'm not saying its race!, appeared threatening - we never hear the opposite side.  Because what we know, from crime statistics and just the basic fucking sociology, is that most white people are scared of black and hispanic people and will immediately perceive a threat even when there isn't one.  Consider that well-armed and -trained cops can shoot a running black man in the back, often missing the man with more than half their shots because he's out of the effective range of a handgun, all because the cop felt threatened.  And everyone generally agrees that yes, the cop was justified in feeling threatened.  

So is it worth it to carry a gun?  Its cheaper to get an alarm system.  Its more fun to get a dog that barks, and you're likelier to get some exercise too.  And its cheaper to pay attention to where you're going, and maybe read some thoughts from everyday African-American and Hispanic people so you can get their perspective on what its like to walk around with armed hair-trigger White folks on every block.

So then why do people carry handguns into their local Starbucks?  Because they've been convinced they live in a dangerous world.  The president of the NRA will happily tell them they live in a dystopia of crime and terrorism and racial conflict.  Their conservative political and religious leaders will tell them the world is falling apart and steeped in evil.  The NRA, as an advocacy group for gun manufacturers, has an interest in faking news about how awful the world is because the gun manufacturers are selling a form of insurance against its danger; whether that insurance actually works as intended, or is in fact vastly more likely to hurt someone innocent, is beside the point.  The cheap little piece of plastic is a talisman against threats of all kind.  And the conservative politicians want people distracted and afraid; distracted so no one notices when they hire cronies or elites to facilitate the sell-off of public assets, and afraid so they can push through racially-biased legislation because they're just frankly bigots.  

And the net result is that any comment thread about "gun control" devolves into an argument between people talking about the 30,000 accidental deaths and suicides caused each year by unmanaged firearm ownership in the US, and a bunch of people convinced they'd have the presence of mind in a once-in-a-lifetime event with terrifying implications to shoot in the general direction of an attacker.  Its been known for decades now that even soldiers don't have the presence of mind to shoot their attackers - and I do not begrudge the soldier in a firefight the use of all his or her weapons, but the basic fact is that almost all of the lead is wasted and ineffective.  Special Forces operators and SWAT officers have to be trained constantly to keep their head, and are drilled repeatedly to ensure they don't think twice about pulling the trigger; and both of those groups have rules of engagement for and environments that are target-rich environments.  Given that, what makes Joe the Accountant certain that he needs more than 10 rounds in his Glock so he's safe when he goes to the mall with his kids to shop for clothes?  

Its absurd, on the face of it, when you put it that way.  And yet Joe is convinced.  It wouldn't be so bad if Joe wanted to drop a couple of thousand on handguns, but Joe is also at the mall with me, carrying a loaded handgun. 

And here's the kicker: Its his lack of judgment that scares me, but its also his lack of judgment that's being exploited by the gun manufacturers.  Its an odd kind of precautionary principle at work here.  We're not supposed to worry about melting polar ice packs or mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants (or lead in the gasoline) because no industry-approved scientist has yet demonstrated a link between that situation and something immediately harmful to my health.  But the same people who don't have a well-calibrated sense of prudence about the future are allowed and indeed encouraged to carry around loaded weapons just in case they see something threatening.

They already don't have a good idea of what a threat is.  They're terrified of black and brown people, they think ACA is some kind of totalitarian plot, they think scientists invented global warming to make money.  And these very same people have armed themselves lethally in case they see something in their environment that might hurt them.

Trump's election highlighted the prevalence of "fake news."  I think this concern is misplaced.  The people who fell for the stories about Benghazi and Hillary's 30,000 emails have been consuming fake news for a very long time, long before Donald Trump started to ask questions about Obama's birth certificate.  The people that voted for Trump are the same people who think carrying a handgun into Starbucks will keep you safe.

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