Roy Moore and Overcoming Perceptions

One of the great contemporary American heroes, in my opinion, is an Afghani immigrant named Mohammad Rahimi. In Afghanistan, Rahimi was an anti-Soviet mujahid, one critical of the Taliban. In the late 80s, Rahimi fled the Middle East and settled in Elizabeth, a New Jersey city about fifteen miles from New York City, where he opened a fried chicken shack which, thanks to Rahimi’s children, became a spot where local artists like Flee Jones would have rap battles.

In the summer of 2011, Rahimi’s son Ahmad disappeared for three months. When he returned, Ahmad was no longer the genial, generous kid he’d purportedly been growing up. He exchanged his graphic tees and hip-hop persona for traditional Muslim garb and beard. He started praying in the back of the chicken shack, posting concerning messages on jihadi websites, and wrote about his desire to become a martyr. Mohammad caught him watching Al Qaeda and ISIS training videos. After Ahmad refused to stop, Mohammad reported his son to the FBI, who in turn cleared him as a potential terrorist and turned their attention to other, more acute, threats.

Two years later, Ahmad detonated three bombs in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York. Thirty-one people were injured, though incredibly no one was killed.

Putting it in print is easy enough, but it’s hard to overstate just how rare a thing it is for a father to turn his son into the authorities on only the suspicion that he’s a terrorist-in-training, much less an Afghani mujahid in post-9/11 New York. In fact, in the history of crime, we are far more likely to find the opposite tendency: people overlooking the obvious culprit within their community in order to persecute an outsider.

In 2014, I wrote about the murder of a Texas police officer named Robert Wood. Wood had pulled over someone driving with their headlights out, and as he approached the stopped vehicle, the driver opened fire. Wood died at the scene. A month passed before police got a lead in the case: a sixteen-year old kid named David Harris had been bragging to his friends that he killed a cop. After interviewing Harris, the police found 1) the vehicle driven by the suspect had been stolen from Harris’ neighbor; 2) ballistics from the gun used to kill Officer Wood matched the gun Harris had stolen from his father, a .22 revolver; 3) this gun was still in Harris’ possession; 4) Harris matched the description provided by Wood’s partner; and, 5) between the murder and the interview, Harris had been arrested for holding up a convenience store. Inexplicably, the Dallas police department and a jury of twelve Americans were convinced that an Ohio hitchhiker named Randall Adams had murdered Officer Wood. Adams served twelve years in prison before he was able to get the conviction overturned. Harris was never officially charged with the crime.

Harris had prior contact with the Dallas Police Department, and it was those incidents that helped him escape what should have been a very straightforward murder conviction. Harris was, by all accounts, a charming and gregarious teenager, a troublemaker with a difficult home life who everyone expected would mature into a decent person. It was almost certainly the fact that the officers working the case already knew and liked Harris that they couldn’t accept the obvious fact that he murdered their friend.

Two more cases that follow this pattern are the murders of Mary Phagan and Meredith Kercher which, although separated in time and place by almost a hundred years and five thousand miles, have astonishing similarities. Both girls were killed by men who were the last known people to see them alive. Both assailants had criminal histories. Both assailants defecated at the scene. Both murderers were well-known within the local communities. Both murderers pointed police towards scapegoats that were outsiders to the community: in Phagan’s case, a northern Jew named Leo Frank, and in Kercher’s, an American student named Amanda Knox. After three trials and several years, Knox was exonerated and returned to America. An impatient mob kidnapped Frank from his jail cell and lynched him in the public square of Marietta, Georgia.

I’m not sure what artifact of human psychology drives us to divert our suspicions from clearly suspect people in our in-group and onto clearly innocent people in our outgroup. It’s easy to hypothesize that after millennia of living in small, tight-knit communities, a tendency towards xenophobia and its related pathologies has been bred into our survival instinct. Perhaps it’s related to the psychology of perceptions, that it’s harder to change a formed perception than it is to create a new one. Perhaps it’s something more complex than that. The point, though, is that the urge to “protect our own” is common, whereas the tendency to see someone we know or someone we love as a murderer, as an agent of evil, is so rare that is basically a miracle when it does happen.

This is a roundabout prologue to talking about senate candidate Roy Moore, but my point about him is succinct but the context to understand it is lengthy. When allegations emerged last week that Moore had sexual contact with a 14-year old girl when he was 32, some people were surprised that some Moore supporters didn’t immediately abandon him. But this does not surprise me, nor do I find it inherently wicked. In a perfect world, they’d ask him to step down and drop out of the race. But as someone who’s framed himself as anti-establishment, who portrays his opposition as willing to slander him, it strikes me as exactly what we should expect to see.

Listen, if it’s an act of heroism when a man can turn his own son into the authorities (and I think it is) then that’s only because of how difficult a thing like that is to do. It should not surprise us that their constituents stuck by Bill Clinton or Ted Kennedy, even as it became more and more apparent that each had committed horrible crimes. And it shouldn’t surprise us that his supporters don’t yet want to abandon Moore. That they can’t yet identify him as a creepy old man who has no business in politics isn’t evidence of their wickedness but their humanity. I hope Roy Moore drops out of the race, or barring that gets trounced in the election. But I refuse to see his base as anything other than what they are: the most recent example of a group of people held hostage by the idiosyncrasies of human psychology.

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What Mass Shootings Tell Us About Gun Control

Yesterday morning, an Illinois man named James Hodgkinson approached a baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia, and opened fire on members of the Republican Congressional baseball team. Hodgkinson, said “to be distraught over President Trump’s election,” indiscriminately shot between fifty and sixty rounds but — miraculously — only managed to injure four people before being shot and killed by Capitol Police.

To no one’s surprise, this incident has reignited the gridlocked debate about gun control. The Washington Post, relying on data from the Gun Violence Archive, reported that this shooting was the 154th mass shooting in America so far this year. Per WaPo:

The archive considers an incident a mass shooting if four or more people are shot, not including the shooter. Some definitions are broader: If the shooter is included in the tally, the number of mass shootings rises to 195. Some, however, are much more narrow: If a mass shooting is defined as four or more victims killed in a public location, excluding robberies and gang violence, the number falls to four.

I am not personally interested in debating how we should define the term “mass shooting.” I am, however, inexplicably drawn to analyzing large datasets, so I spent the morning digging into the Gun Violence Archive’s mass shooting database.

A few notes: the GVA archive is downloadable as an Excel file, but not all of the pertinent information comes with the spreadsheet. I spent the better part of the morning investigating and categorizing each individual incident. In fifty cases, or about a third of the dataset, there was either no suspect in custody, police were not releasing details about the suspect’s motives, or no motive information was available. I removed these incidents from parts of my analysis. Further, some might dispute how I categorized certain shootings. An example: when a shooting was described as a drive-by shooting with two or more shooters, I categorized it as a gang shooting. Someone else might call that terrorism. With respect to the broader implications, I don’t think the distinction matters much.

Of the 104 shooting events I could categorize, I used eight broad categories (listed from most deaths to least): Gang-related, Domestic Violence, Interpersonal Disputes, Robberies/Home Invasions, Workplace Violence, Terrorism, Shootouts (where two or more people exchange fire), and Hate Crimes. Here is a chart of those incidents:

This is where the debate often goes off course. Republicans and Second Amendment advocates tend to point to gang shootings, acts of terrorism, and other crimes as evidence that criminals, by definition, are people who are willing to break the law, and as such are willing to acquire guns illegally. And this point is duly noted: of the incidents where a gun was illegally acquired — or an illegal gun was used — the vast majority were gang-related shootings. One the other hand, in the incidents involving interpersonal disputes, workplace violence, and domestic violence, Democrats and Gun Control advocates have an equally compelling point: most of these crimes would not have happened if the perpetrator, temper running high, did not have immediate access to a gun.

With this idea in mind, I compared the locations of the shootings with the local gun control laws. To do this, I borrowed from Gun Law Scorecard who, through a somewhat opaque process, rates each state by the gun control legislation they’ve enacted. Cross referencing each shooting by the state’s Gun Law Score, I put together this table:


States that received an “F” grade likewise had the most mass shootings, the most deaths, and the most injuries. The Gun Law Scorecard appears to be vindicated, at least in terms of the states they fail. (On the other hand, the states with the fewest mass shootings and least deaths had B, C, and D grades, so the rest of the grading system might require some tweaking.)

But not all gun control measures are created equal. There is plenty of academic debate over the efficacy of allowing or prohibiting concealed carry. However, one measure that seems to be generally effective is universal background checks. In states where universal background checks are required, impulse or “hot temper” mass shootings make up less than a quarter of the overall incidents, compared 58% of such shootings in states that do not require universal background checks. Moreover, mass shootings are more common and lethal in non-background check states.

The single most effective gun control measure appears to be universal background checks. Though Republicans are right that there are a number of situations where a person intent on committing a felony act of violence will acquire a gun by any means necessary, there are many incidents where the mere presence of a gun fatally escalates an situation that would otherwise only result in bruised fists and egos. The evidence also shows that mass shootings are more rare in states that require a background check, the shootings are less lethal in those states, and there are fewer injuries per shooting. Although I generally support the Second Amendment right to gun ownership, a nationwide universal background check on all public and private gun purchases seems to be a clear and effective strategy for reducing, though not eliminating, mass shootings.

Present Concerns and the band Joseph

In an interview with Noisetrade, Natalie Closner Schepman, who together with her sisters Allison and Meegan Closner compose the band Joseph, remarked on how our culture tries to motivate us through fear. “We live in a culture that makes money by scaring us. We are constantly being reminded of what peril lies ahead if we don’t buy this thing or move to this place or choose this particular news source as our primary doomsayer.” “White Flag,” Joseph’s first single off their sophomore album “I’m Alone, No You’re Not,” is a song about optimistic defiance to this kind of fear:

I’ll be an army, no you’re
Not gonna stop me gettin’
Through
I’ll sing a marching song and
Stomp through the halls louder than
You

I could surrender but I’d
Just be pretending, no I’d
Rather be dead than live a lie
Burn the white flag

Elaborating on the theme of the song, Schepman offered an excerpt from On Living in an Atomic Age — CS Lewis’ essay about how to deal with the sudden, ever-present threat that nuclear war could at any moment wipe all life from the earth. “This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things – praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts – not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.”

In writing On Living in an Atomic Age, Lewis might as well have had Donald Trump in mind. Like the atomic bomb, the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the office of the president has fomented a collective existential crisis in both the body politic and the public at large. Donald Trump is “a unique threat to American democracy,” according to the Washington Post. “(Trump’s) contempt for constitutional norms might reveal the nation’s two-century-old experiment in checks and balances to be more fragile than we knew.” Even conservatives like Andrew Sullivan have described President Trump as, “In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order … an extinction-level event.”

Whether such analysis is reasonable or exaggerated remains to be seen, but the paralyzing enticements of fear and despair are in no way new. “In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb,” Lewis argued. “‘How are we to live in an atomic age?'” I am tempted to reply: ‘Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might have cut your throat any night.” That death put on an unfamiliar mask did not give it new power; instead, it shattered our cherished illusion that we are immortal. Lewis continued, “Do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. …you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways.”

By echoing the sage wisdom Lewis offered in the face of that more immediate threat, Joseph position themselves as the perfect salve for the persistent chafing of our current cultural moment. “There is plenty to be concerned about!” Schepman adds. “We are a polarized country and there is more division than ever right now, so I have marveled at how much I need ‘White Flag’ more and more.” Joseph meets us in our division and discouragement and offers a joyful antidote.

I’m Alone, No You’re Not” has been well-received since its release last August. While critics have waxed on — rightly — about Joseph’s transcendent harmonies and sharp melodic instincts, I find myself equally captivated by their consistently positive message, an unfolding ideological landscape at least as beautiful as their voices. Take “I Don’t Mind,”* for example, a song about internalizing the belief that you are worthy of love. “I was saying for a while,” recalled Meegan during Joseph’s Tiny Desk Concert, “that it was what I wanted someone to say to me about my own sadness, and it just hit me that I would have to say it to myself first before I could receive it from anyone else.”

I will love you anyway
With all your demons in the way
Nothing can keep us apart
I walk through walls into your heart

*(A simple diagnostic test: if the harmonies at 2:13 don’t give you chills, there is likely something wrong with your central nervous system — consult a doctor immediately. Let’s not kid ourselves: the Closners can sing).

Whirlwind” may be the only musical meditation on the book of Job ever written that isn’t absolutely ridiculous. I don’t know if the members of Joseph identify as Christians — Schepman attended Seattle Pacific University, a Christian school — but they find themselves in excellent company with great musicians like Sufjan Stevens and mewithoutYou as they give fresh life to Christian themes without presenting themselves as Christian musicians per se.

Have you held the mallets drumming thunder
Or filled the clouds with rain?
Have you opened up the skies above you
And seen a desert wake?
Have you given orders to the morning
Or shown the dawn its place?
Can you grab hold of the earth’s four corners
And shake shake shake out the darkness

In “Planets,” Joseph conjures Eisley at their fanciful best without flirting with the adolescent imagery that made Eisley feel, at times, unapproachable. “Planets” is also the best example of free form poetry on “I’m Alone, No You’re Not,” the line “The stars are a blanket, I’ll wrap them round these shoulders/Arms spread out wide, turn falling into flight” calling to mind Beryl Smeeton’s autobiography “The Stars My Blanket.”

Themes of care, intimacy, and the resolve to embrace life and love over fear and despair make “I’m Alone, No You’re Not” at once timeless and timely. On Living in an Atomic Age ends with Lewis’ observation that “Nothing is more likely to destroy a species or a nation than a determination to survive at all costs. Those who care for something else more than civilization are the only people by whom civilization is at all likely to be preserved. Those who want Heaven most have served Earth best. Those who love Man less than God do most for Man.” By setting their minds on higher things, Joseph created a poetic experience that will take on new meaning and persistent relevance as our present concerns shift. “I’m Alone, No You’re Not” is a great record to enjoy with a glass of whiskey and my favorite album of 2016.

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For Christians, the Trump Presidency Must Be a Call to Arms

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In the beginning of the book of Daniel, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar has conquered Jerusalem and taken several noble Jewish children as hostages. Those children were given new names, often ones that implied loyalty to pagan gods – for instance, Daniel (Hebrew for “God is my judge”) was renamed Belteshazzar, which means “May Our Goddess Protect the King.” If you can imagine having a new name forced upon you, and having that name be an insult to your religious heritage, you now have a glimpse of how that might have felt. Likewise, they were forced to embrace a new language and a new culture, and there is even some evidence to suggest that these Jews were castrated. These boys were taken from their families, made to live in a new city, had every aspect of their lives transformed, and may even have had their gender erased.

In the aftermath of Donald Trump winning the presidential election, I have to imagine that many Americans can strongly relate to Daniel and his cohort.

I have to imagine that many minorities racial, ethnic, religious and sexual must feel as though they are on the precipice of seeing their value evaporate and their identities snuffed out.

Donald Trump rode a wave of hateful rhetoric to the most powerful office on the planet, allying himself with white supremacists and neo-Nazis along the way. And while it’s certainly true that not all or even most of Trump’s supporters fit that description, the many that do will now feel emboldened to spread their anti-gospel of wickedness and hate as far as they can.

Ultimately, the book of Daniel has a single underlying theme: that despite present appearances, God is in control. If we believe that God was in control when He put Jerusalem in the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, how much more must He be in control over so much less a man?

In Romans five, Paul reminds us that while we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly; that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Too much can be made of terms like “sinners” and “ungodly.” Paul’s point was not so much to point out the moral shortcomings of His audience, but rather to help us feel the overwhelming torrent of the love of God. Instead of thinking of those words with their moral meaning, replace them with their relational significance: when we were still strangers to Him, Christ died for us. When God owed us nothing, He gave us everything.

It goes without saying that with a majority in the House, the Senate, and a “Republican” as President, Republicans and conservatives may feel emboldened to impose a legislative and judicial will on America that will turn American citizens into refugees at home, “an America for me but not for thee.” I hope they resist that urge. I hope the principled members of Congress, regardless of party, resist that urge at every turn. I am optimistic, but not naïve.

Christians need to remember what happened to the heroes of our faith when they fell into the hands of a tyrant. Christians need to remember the astounding grace we received when we were still strangers to God.  Will we extend our love to those who now feel powerless? Will we sacrifice ourselves for those who find themselves pushed to the fringes? Will we affirm and reaffirm the infinite value of every person created in the image of God, which is just a redundant way to say “all of humanity”?

Or will we make those who seem somewhat unlike us feel even less like us, to pursue power as though we think this is “a Gospel for me, but not for thee”?

The Righteous will answer Him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go and visit you?”

If Abraham Lincoln was correct, if the real test of a person’s character is how they handle power, these next four years will shine a spotlight on the character of Christians in America. I hope we rise to the challenge. I hope our affiliation with Christ dominates our affiliation with politics. In 2011, Egyptian Muslims formed a human shield around Coptic Christians who wanted to celebrate Christmas, producing one of the most touching photographs I can remember – and the clearest example of Christ-likeness I can think of. I hope American Christians follow their example, and – hand-in-hand – stand between our brothers and sisters and those who mean to hurt them.

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Donald Trump Jr. and Very Big Numbers

1.
Recently, Donald Trump, Jr. – son of the Republican nominee/possible lizard person – tweeted out this graphic:

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The insinuation, of course, is that any Syrian refugee could possibly be an ISIS sleeper agent trying to gain access to the United States. The comparison was quickly denounced in some circles, roundly praised in others, and given a stern rebuke by the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co., the maker of the fruity candy, who said, “Skittles are candy. Refugees are people. We don’t feel it’s an appropriate analogy. We will respectively refrain from further commentary, as anything we say could be misinterpreted as marketing.”

Perhaps the most interesting response came from Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute. Nowrasteh argued that the Skittles meme is an appropriate metaphor, but only if utilized properly. It is, after all, a very different story if our bowl holds fifty Skittles or if it holds a million. Per Nowrasteh:

Imagine a bowl full of 3.25 million Skittles that has been accumulated from 1975 to the end of 2015.  We know that 20 of the Skittles in that bowl intended to do harm but only three of those 20 are actually fatal.  That means that one in 1.08 million of them is deadly.  It gets even better though.  There are over three hundred million Americans and not everyone can get a Skittle.  This means that the chance of any American actually eating the fatal Skittle and perishing is about one in 3.64 billion a year during the 41-year time period. Do you eat from the bowl without quaking in your boots?  I would.

The odds of an American being killed by a refugee in any given year are one in 3.64 billion. That is an absurdly small number. But is it correct?

2.
Nowrasteh arrived at his estimate by finding the number of refugees admitted to the United States who were either convicted of planning a terrorist attack or actually carried one out. There were twenty such individuals. “Refugees were not very successful at killing Americans in terrorist attacks,” Nowrasteh writes. “Of the 20, only three were successful in their attacks, killing a total of three people.”

Nowrasteh then comes to his yearly average by dividing three by the sum total of the American population from 1975-2015 (roughly 10.9 billion) to arrive at his one in 3.64 billion figure. (The most dangerous form of immigrant is the one here on a tourist Visa: the odds of dying to such a person in any given year are one in 3.6 million. The second most dangerous? Students.)

“The three refugee terrorists were Cubans who committed their attacks in the 1970s,” Nowrasteh adds. “(They) were admitted before the Refugee Act of 1980 created the modern rigorous refugee-screening procedures currently in place.” According to Nowrasteh, there have been no such murders committed by foreign-born refugees since that act passed.

3.
There are a couple things to consider here. The first is that translating a yearly probability into an absolute probability is a fairly tricky process. The absolute probability over the span from 1975-2015 is roughly 1 per 166 million people. (The sum of Americans who are alive today plus the number who have died since 1975 gives the total number of Americans alive at any point since 1975. That number is approximately 500 million. If three died in refugee-related terrorist activities over that span, that gives us approximately one in 166 million.) But 41 years does not cover the average American life-span. If we can expect to live to 75, on average, and we can expect this rate to remain constant at 1 in 3.64 billion, then the odds of being killed by a refugee-terrorist are now one in 49 million, or roughly the odds of winning the Powerball if you buy four tickets.

Second, if we use the number of refugee-terrorists (whether or not they were successful in their attacks) as our numerator, the odds get a little worse. The number of victims in any given terrorist attack is highly variable. Sometimes these attackers are victims of their own incompetence and there are no victims except for an amateur bomb-maker and the application of common sense. Future attacks, if they are ever indeed carried out, might be more effective at producing casualties. According to John Mueller, professor at Ohio State University, there have been approximately 3.2 million refugees admitted to the United States since 1975. Of those, 20 have attempted acts of terror, or about one for every 162,000 refugees. That’s almost identical to our current rate of mass shooters, which begs an uncomfortable question: are comfortable with the current level of mass shooters in our country?

That leads us to the final, most important factor: is there any reason to expect that the current rate of one in 3.64 billion should stay constant? This is the question at the heart of the debate. “Perhaps future Skittles added into the bowl will be deadlier than previous Skittles but the difference would have to be great before the risks become worrisome,” says Nowrestah. Total refugees from ISIS-controlled territories have increased steadily. According to the State Department, there were 31 total Syrian refugees admitted into the United States. In 2015, that number was 1,682. Refugees from high-percentage Muslim countries have increased a small amount since 2008 (30,934 last year compared to 23,490 in 2008).

Of the twenty refugee-terrorists on Nowrasteh’s list, nine of them entered the US after 9/11. Four of them – Yassin Aref, Najibullah Zazi & Zarein Ahmedzay, and Abdullatif Aldosary – came from regions affiliated with terror groups. Given the high numbers of refugees from these areas, the relative risk for such refugees is one in 44,000 – four times higher than the average rate for refugees. (None of these men were successful in carrying out their crimes).

4.
Depending on how you frame the question, you have between a one in 49 million and a one in 166 million chance of being killed by a refugee-terrorist on American soil. Somewhere between one and 44,000 and one in 162,000 refugees will attempt such an act. Those numbers may seem high, maybe even intolerably high. But stop to consider the fact that you are 7300 times more likely to die in a car accident than at the hands of a refugee-terrorist. Have you stopped driving yet?

The refugee vetting process starts with the UNHCR, which is the U.N.’s refugee agency. The U.N. performs interviews, biological screenings, and attempts to do background checks to weed out criminals and military combatants. After the U.N. refers candidates to the U.S., the Resettlement Support Center initiates an interagency background check, sending the relevant information through the FBI, NCC/IC, the State Department, and Homeland Security. (Syrian refugees receive an even more thorough screening than the average refugee.) Basic biometrics are collected and a medical screening is done. Less than half of referrals are accepted. Finally, an NGO determines where refugees will be settled.

Refugees are subject to the highest level of scrutiny and security checks of any traveler to the United States. The process takes 18-24 months to complete. Refugees have little influence on where and when they will be resettled. As a recipe for spreading terror across an ocean, this method has serious drawbacks. It’s no wonder why the most deadly terrorists came here on student and travel visas. Though we may squabble about particular numbers, the current risk posed by refugees is absurdly low.

This Transgender Bathroom Issue Has Made Hypocrites of Us All

1.
When Facebook asked me for my political affiliation, however many years ago, I put “moderate.” Though I hold a lot of conservative values, and the philosophy that undergirds conservative ideology makes intuitive sense to me, a lot of Republican positions run contrary to those values and I’ve had trouble finding politicians that consistently embrace similar views to my own. The landmark essay “A (Conservative) Case for Gay Marriage” was penned by gay conservative Andrew Sullivan in 1989 and went largely ignored until it was dusted off last summer to help Republicans cope with the Obergefell decision. I’d made my own (conservative) case for gay marriage while in college. All that to say, the philosophical foundations were there, but the marriage between conservative philosophy and Republican ideology has long struck me as a loveless one.

It’s not as though I found liberal ideology fit me better. As I learned more about Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory, I was better able to put into words the discomfort I had with liberalism. According to Haidt, there are five key moral foundations: Care/harm, Fairness/cheating, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, and Sanctity/degradation. “In this analogy,” he says in his book “The Righteous Mind, “the moral matrix of a culture is something like its cuisine: it’s a cultural construction, influenced by accidents of environment and history, but it’s not so flexible that anything goes. You can’t have a cuisine based on grass and tree bark, or even one based primarily on bitter tastes. Cuisines vary, but they all must please tongues equipped with the same five taste receptors. Moral matrices vary, but they all must please righteous minds equipped with the same … social receptors.” (For the record: comparing something to food is one quick way to get me to take an idea seriously.)

Haidt’s key observation was that while conservatives hold each of these moral foundations in roughly equal importance, liberals emphasize care and fairness far above the other three. The Black Lives Matter movement is almost a perfect case study for this theory: those who embrace it use “fairness” language; those who critique the movement almost invariably make an appeal to the importance of authority. This should not, in itself, be read as a critique of Black Lives Matter. Sometimes sweet and sour, combined in precarious balance, form a transcendental flavor. But just as I don’t want to only eat sweet and sour foods the rest of my life, I can’t completely eschew the values of loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

2.
This has all been prelude to the main idea, which is the baffling disagreement about the bathroom ordinances currently in contention, most notably North Carolina’s HB2. Outrage over the signing of the law has been swift and loud, of course, with businesses and governments staging boycotts of the state of North Carolina. And while I agree with Governor Pat McCrory when he says that there has been a “vicious” smear campaign miscategorizing components of the law, that doesn’t mean I think it’s a good law. In fact, I can think of no compelling case to restrict transgender men and women from using the bathroom they feel is most appropriate to use.

But – yet again – this does provide a fantastic case study for Haidt’s moral foundations theory. Proponents of such restrictive bathroom laws such as HB2 are reacting to encroachment of their “care” and “sanctity” foundations, while opponents are responding to the “care” and “fairness” modules:

a) The mainline argument in support of HB2-type laws argues that when we rely on the subjective standard of personal gender identity, there will be nothing stopping rapists and other sexual predators from insincerely using personal gender identity to gain access to women’s bathrooms and locker rooms. At that point, it is argued, they will have better access to victims. To phrase it in care language, someone might reasonably say, “I care about the women and children in my life, and without these laws they are at greater risk to sexual predators.”

(I also suspect that many people perceive transgenderism as a threat to the sanctity of the “male” and “female,” at least in a more traditional formulation of gender. But until people are free to discuss those ideas openly and without being labeled bigots, the principle of charity dictates we should restrict ourselves to considering the strongest form of the arguments actually being set forth.)

b) In a similar way, opponents of HB2-type laws are simply saying, “I care about the transgender men and women of the world, and it is unfair that they should have to face the “othering” and discrimination that comes with having to use the wrong bathroom. They face enough challenges as it is.” I find it prohibitively difficult to brush aside that argument.

Tim Keller said in “The Reason for God” that if you can’t formulate your opponent’s argument in a way that he or she would agree with, you can’t actually claim that you disagree with them. Similarly, Daniel Dennett has said, “You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.’” I hope either position would accept my characterization of their position. If not, that’s what the comments section is for.

3.
I suppose it should not be surprising that this controversy has made hypocrites of us all.

Let me start with liberals. Do you not see the baffling contradiction in the fact that you’ve been yammering on and on about rape culture, that you’ve been parroting statistics about the threat that women face daily and in accumulation over the course of their lives, but when it comes to public bathrooms and locker rooms, you’re suggesting that the threat of rape is no longer real? Do public bathrooms have a magical property about them that prevents sexual assault? I’ve heard women complain about being ogled at the gym, or at bars, or in restaurants. Acknowledging that there are men who don’t respect your agency and privacy enough to leave you alone when you’re on the treadmill, what makes you think they won’t likewise ignore the spirit of transgender-inclusive spaces? From a sheer, raw numbers perspective, do you honestly believe there are more rapists in American or more transgender men and women? The fear of increased risk of rape is real.

Or maybe you’re just trying to say you don’t like anti-rape measures when they unfairly hurt innocent people. Please, tell me more.

Conservatives aren’t exactly paragons of self-consistency on this issue, either. In fact, I think they’ve got it worse.

Conservatives, isn’t one of the big arguments in support of gun rights the idea that criminals, by definition, don’t care about breaking gun laws? What makes you think that sexual predators have cared about violating the sanctity of public restrooms? Since we have a plethora of examples of such men doing just that, why would we expect to see a flood of new cases? If you weren’t seeing a statistically significant risk of being assaulted in a public restroom before, there is little reason to expect that to change.

With respect to your children, were you really sending your six-year old to the bathroom by his- or herself? According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), four fifths of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, and 70% of rapes take place within a mile of the victim’s home, in the victim’s school, or at the residence of a friend or family member. The increased risk of bathroom rape is overblown (1). When RAINN says, “The perpetrator is not hiding in the bush,” they might as well be saying, “The perpetrator is not hiding in the bathroom.”

Besides, aren’t you guys the ones typically complaining about the expanse of the “nanny state”? And now you’re saying it’s the government’s job to mitigate the risk of rape of your children via bathroom regulations? That doesn’t really add up, either.

I suspect businesses will be intelligent about how they manage this situation – and it seems to me there is ample room for compromise. Target stores, for example, have gender-neutral family bathrooms. The Gap and Banana Republic stores have gender-neutral changing rooms, typically in a single row. Perhaps larger stores can implement a panic button (or such buttons in each stall) that will alert security of particular threats. I think an innovative solution will eventually win out. That is, if we can find a way to give each other the benefit of the doubt and offer some understanding for the real concerns of both sides.

 

(1) You may have noticed that I claimed both that the fear of more rapes is both real and overblown. And yes, on the surface, this is a paradoxical statement. But it’s like shark attacks: the odds of being attacked by a shark are incredibly low, and not a significant-enough risk that they should deter would-be swimmers. But attacks do still happen, and they are gruesome to witness. That is, the fear of shark attacks is real, but the risk is overblown. Especially when you’ve just been watching Jaws.

Jennifer Lawrence and Gender Bias

After last winter’s Sony e-mail hack, it came to light Jennifer Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars for her performance in the film American Hustle. Today, in Lena Dunham’s newsletter Letters to Lenny, Lawrence shared her perspective about the incident, first blaming herself for failing as a negotiator: “I gave up early. I didn’t want to keep fighting over millions of dollars that, frankly, due to two franchises, I don’t need.” Beyond that, Lawrence suggests that wanting to be seen as likable informed her negotiating tactics. “I didn’t want to seem ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled.’ At the time, that seemed like a fine idea, until I saw the payroll on the Internet and realized every man I was working with definitely didn’t worry about being ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled.’”

“‘Are we socially conditioned to behave this way?” Lawrence wonders. “Could there still be a lingering habit of trying to express our opinions in a certain way that doesn’t “offend” or “scare” men?”

Myself, I wonder why Lawrence is negotiating her salary instead of having an experienced agent or attorney do so on her behalf. But I am ignorant about the pricing model of such services.

I’m not writing this to defend Hollywood, nor to condemn Lawrence’s perspective on her own experience. Her misgivings seem grounded, though perhaps a little too self-aware. (“I’m over trying to find the ‘adorable’ way to state my opinion and still be likable!” she says, and my irony radar records not a blip.) Rather, this reminds me of some psych research that shows that in negotiations over car sales and repair prices, white men are given lower quotes than women or black shoppers. This trend wasn’t absolutely consistent, however: women were only quoted higher prices when they didn’t mention a price on their own. When the callers suggested their own price – whether fair or high – both genders got the same offer. In fact, women were more likely than men to receive a discount on services when they asked for one.

The pricing, then, depends primarily on the mechanic’s conclusion of how well-informed his clients were. Mechanics apparently assume, consciously or unconsciously, that white men know more about car repairs than women or minorities. When there was more available evidence (a price suggested by the customer), gender bias ceased to be a relevant indicator. (I’d personally be interested to see this study repeated in an area involving things that typify white male ignorance, such as wedding dress prices or such, to see if the situation is reversed in those contexts).

I wonder if something similar is at play at Sony. Perhaps the studio executive sitting across from Jennifer Lawrence used her gender as a heuristic for how knowledgeable she was about the nuances of back-end points. Perhaps the bias showed up just as much due to her age – gender is not the only obvious difference between Lawrence and Christian Bale, Jeremy Renner, and Bradley Cooper. That is not to say that this was a less insidious form of bias, just a different one. Perhaps even a more subtle one. Fortunately, the research available to us has an explicit remedy: know a fair offer ahead of time and be prepared to vocalize it.

JLaw