Donald Trump, Charles Manson, and the Importance of Basic Fairness

Following the belated death of Charles Manson, Newsweek published an article comparing the rhetorical style of the late cult leader and murderer to that of the current American president. Based primarily on the opinion of psychoanalyst Mark Smaller, the Newsweek piece notes similarities in how both Manson and Trump were “able to speak in a way that engaged those who felt marginalized or alienated.” Per Smaller, “Our current president speaks in an emotional or affective way to large numbers of people in our country who feel a kind of alienation or disconnection from the government.” Meanwhile, “cult followers … are so seduced by feelings of acceptance and understanding that they accept their leaders’ ideologies regardless of how destructive or dangerous they may be.”

Evaluations of Trump’s communication style are nothing new. Evan Puschak, more commonly known as the Nerdwriter, has done at least two video essays on the topic. One focuses on how Trump answers questions, using an example from an interview with Jimmy Kimmel in the wake of the San Bernardino shooting, while the other takes a look at how he composes tweets. Studies have shown that Trump communicates on a fourth-grade level, using disproportionately simple, monosyllabic language, a “volley of jabs” as Puschak puts it, and ending his sentences with strong, punchy words. Likewise, Trump charges his tweets with emotion by taking advantage of the fact that we perceive Tweets (and texts and other screen-oriented communication) to be more akin to speech than to writing. “Where his opponents and other politicians write through Twitter, Trump speaks through it,” says Puschak. “Instead of asking us to read, he forces us to hear.”

While one might draw similar ideas from the Newsweek piece and the Nerdwriter videos, one is left with the feeling that putting Manson and Trump side by side was a little bit fanciful. While Newsweek does take pains to note that they are not trying to draw a direct comparison between Trump and Manson — “Smaller is clear that he does not believe President Donald Trump is similar to the convicted killer, or that their followers have any shared beliefs or characteristics” — it’s reasonable to wonder if such bases covering is a little bit disingenuous. It’s perfectly valid, I think, to draw comparisons to the way different leaders might use language to apprehend the devotion of impressionable minds; it’s also perfectly valid to point out that such comparisons could be made without such objectionable insinuations. Newsweek might not have been trying to say that Charles Manson and Donald Trump are similar in other ways, but they certainly didn’t seem to mind if we came away with that idea on our own.

These comparisons may be true while not being fair. If this example doesn’t strike you as particularly egregious, ask yourself what your reaction would be if Fox News compared Obama to Hitler because they both love dogs or if Breitbart likened Hilary Clinton to the serial killer Ted Bundy because they were both in favor of suicide prevention.

In the age of Internet memes, political talk shows, and political propaganda television dressed up as educational comedy, fairness is a dying virtue. We increasingly prefer to anger ourselves over things other people don’t actually think than to actively engage with what they do. In “The Reason for God,” Tim Keller notes 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. At this point, few of us seem at all tainted by exposure to our opponents, much less the strongest form of their ideas. Those witches might have had us in mind when they chimed, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. I’ve previously argued that most popular political positions can be framed as a positive (i.e., “Because I care about….”). In another of Evan Puschak’s video essays, he examines the pernicious effects of combining schadenfreude, the process taking delight in someone else’s misfortune, with politics, and how it’s helped create a more toxic political atmosphere. While it used to be that, “on some level, we believe our opponent group is genuinely trying to help, just going about it the wrong way,” we’ve slowly come to see each other as evil incarnate, and deserving of whatever bad things that come each other’s way. This truth is sad and demoralizing, but also self-apparent… and possible to stop. I think it’s on each of us to help create the world we want to live in.

If that’s not enough reason to give fairness another shot, think of the way that ignoring basic fairness distracts us from more important issues. The more time we spend discussing the nonexistent similarities between Donald Trump and Charles Manson, the less attention we can give to Trump’s record as president, or to the still lingering, unanswered accusations of sexual assault that have been leveled against him.

manson.jpg

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Police Shootings Revisited

This time last year, I published a blogpost that examined police shootings in America. In it, I tried to determine whether police shootings of black people outpaced their expected value in terms of their population share from state to state. I found that the majority of states were within the expected distribution, i.e., in 33 states there was insufficient evidence to suggest that the police were more likely to fatally shoot black people than anyone else. However, the remaining 17 states (my home state of Minnesota among them) showed evidence of racial bias. That is to say, far more black people were shot than could be explained by randomness alone. Additionally, in the most concerning case — when the victim was unarmed, not resisting, and not fleeing the scene — black victims constituted a plurality of the cases. They not only outpaced their population share but were the most common victims of police shootings under those conditions.

Since it’s been a year† I thought it would be a good time to revisit the question and see how we’ve progressed in this area. Despite the best efforts of Colin Kaepernick and his like-minded cohort, it has been my impression that this issue has gotten significantly less press attention in the last year than in the year that preceded it. Is this a reflection of real, quantifiable improvement in this problem? Or have we simply turned our attention to other things?

The results, as one might expect, are something of a mixed bag. Nationwide, the shooting of black people is down roughly 8.5%, while every other category is up slightly. In total, this amounts to an extra three fatal shootings per month, or about a 4.2% rise from the preceding period.

Fatal Shootings Per Month

It’s not immediately clear what’s driving the increase in police shootings. I compared state per capita police shootings to per capita violent crime and there is a loose correlation between the two; however, one would expect states that have seen an increase in violent crime to also show an increase in police shootings, but that does not appear to be the case:

Police Shootings by Per Capita Violent Crime

Police Shootings by Change in Violent Crime

Perhaps these results would be more meaningful if examined on the city level. I am unaware of a city level violent crime rate data set.

When segmented by state, the picture looks quite similar to last year. Every state that showed evidence of racial bias last year continued to show it once the next year of data was incorporated. Moreover, three states and the District of Columbia moved from within the expected distribution to borderline status.

Iowa (n=13, p=.027, k=4), for example, is just barely off the expected distribution, though its small sample size doesn’t inspire compelling conclusions be drawn from its example:

Iowa Example

Washington D.C. (n=11, p=.490, k=10) is similar to Iowa in this respect. D.C. only had three fatal police shootings in 2017, but all of the victims were black men.

DC Example

North Carolina (n=75, p=.216, k=28) has a sample size that justifies its placement among the problematic states. Twelve of North Carolina’s twenty-five victims of fatal police shootings in 2017 were black.

North Carolina Example

Washington state (n=70, p=.037, k=11) had a surprising number of total shootings. Based on national averages, one would expect to see about 30% fewer such shootings, or about 20 (!) fewer fatal shootings since January 2015. Though black victims made up a somewhat smaller proportion of the total shootings in Washington, they well outpaced the population share.

Washington Example

California (n=457, p=.067, k=72) continues to be the worst offender in the country, killing the most of every race and significantly outpacing its population share. In fact, if California’s total shootings were simply the difference between its actual shootings and its expected shootings by population size, it would still rank second in the nation.

California

It should be noted, of course, that police shootings are not randomly distributed by state, nor are they consistently proportionate to population size. California, Texas, Florida, and New York are the four most populous states in the country and they rank 1st, 25th, 34th, and 51st respectively the rate of police shootings. An important aspect of this conversation is to determine how, exactly, to make California, Arizona, and Oklahoma more like New York, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. (To the best of my knowledge, no one has studied variance in police shootings by state.)  Racial parity here is a laudable goal, but it will be incomplete — and of small comfort to grieving families — if it is not also accompanied by a rapid decline in overall police shootings.

Total Shootings minus Expected Shootings

It’s not all bad news. While states such as Washington, Ohio, Florida, and Missouri are killing more people overall, states like Texas, New Mexico, Nebraska, and Colorado are killing fewer. Texas, for instance, averaged reduced their rate of fatal shootings by more than one per month over the course of 2017. This, unfortunately, was not enough to offset the gains in states like Washington, Ohio, and Missouri. Perhaps closer examination of either extreme — with a contrast with the states that saw little or no change — would provide some insights.

Change in shootings.PNG

Furthermore, states like Nevada, Alabama, and Kentucky were among eleven in total that significantly improved their performance with respect to racial bias. Nevada, for example, didn’t kill a single black person in 2017, despite the black population of Nevada hovering around 5%.

Lastly, the category I referred to last year as the “most insidious form of police shootings” — when the victim was unarmed, not resisting, and not fleeing the scene — has inched closer to the expected distribution. Black people are no longer the plurality of victims of this category. This superficially positive change masks the devastating fact that the number of this type of shooting has skyrocketed: 35% more in the last twelve months than in the twenty one months that preceded it.

Unarmed not resisting not fleeing

On the whole, I would argue that there is reason for optimism. While it’s unclear what is driving the changes that are reflected in the data, the overall picture is one that increasingly matches the population demographics of our country. (It should be pointed out that this facet is understated in this analysis as the country has gotten less white since the last census, meaning the population demographics used here would make us more likely to find evidence of bias than if more recent figures were available.) Whether this change has been driven by new policies, by increased media attention and protesting, or is just an artifact of having a more robust data set, that aspect of the trend seems to be positive. No state is perfect, and there is a lot of work yet to be done, but the data suggest that, with respect to racial bias, we have taken a step in the right direction. Police are killing more white people, however. Perhaps this is tied to the recent spike in the crime rate, but the data are unclear on this point.

 

† Every time “2017” is used in this post, I am referring to the span from October 10th, 2016 to October 11th, 2017, and “2015-2016” refers to January 1st, 2015 to October 9th 2016. Apologies for the confusion: this choice was made to avoid making the date references more cumbersome than need be.

A Threshold Model for Campus Rape

1.
Imagine a middle-school gymnasium dressed and decorated for a dance, with a battery of 7th and 8th graders lining the walls. The lights are dimmed, an ancient disco ball is spinning, and the chem-teacher-qua-DJ has hit shuffle on a playlist of stale tunes from his own youth, and a song like “Mambo Number 5” is blaring through an ad hoc PA system. Inevitably, some intrepid student will make his or her way onto the dance floor and bust a move. Whether this child does so in a quest for attention or a moment of bravery is unclear—and unimportant, because a second joins shortly after, and then a third, and a fourth. Before long, the dance floor is crowded and only the shyest kids remain along the wall.

This is one of many phenomena that can be described in terms of what sociologists call thresholds. For any particular person, their threshold is the number of other people they would have to see participating in an activity before he or she becomes willing to join in. That first kid on the dance floor has a threshold of zero—he or she does not require implicit social permission to start dancing publicly. The next one out has a threshold of one, and so on, and so on. Threshold models have been used to explain how rumors spread, why riots break out, the progression of Kickstarter campaigns, and even how the Arab spring gained traction.

In the middle school dance scenario, there is more or less a uniform distribution of thresholds: there is one student with threshold 0 (the instigator), and then someone who will start dancing but only if someone else goes first—this person has threshold 1. Up next is the person with threshold 2, someone who needs to be convinced the party is starting before he’ll leave the sidelines, and so on up to the last person who joins in. In scenarios like these, the outcome is more or less inevitable once the instigator acts: there is a domino or “bandwaggoning” effect and participates. It should be noted, however, that the more extreme the scenario, the fewer zero-threshold actors exist. Plenty of people might be the person willing to be the second one to jump out of an airplane with a parachute strapped to their backs. Vanishingly few people would do so without seeing someone else do it first.

Now consider a situation where we’ve replaced the person with threshold one with an otherwise-identical person who has a threshold of two. Even if the instigator acts, no one else will follow suit. Mark Granovetter, the pioneer of this concept, described this scenario with respect to riots: “By all of our usual ways of describing groups of people, the two crowds are essentially identical. But the outcome in the second case is quite different—the instigator riots, but there is now no one with threshold 1, and so the riot ends at that point, with one rioter.” In such perturbations, the result is a single person standing next to a shattered pane of glass as a crowd looks on, or a lone middle schooler krumping on the dance floor. Or you get this incredibly awkward scene from Jerry Maguire:

2.
In March of 1918, an army cook named Albert Gitchell reported sick at Fort Riley in Kansas. Within a week, over a hundred soldiers in his cohort had been hospitalized with a particularly virulent strain of influenza. By the middle of the month, the disease had spread from Kansas to New York; by April, it had spread to most cities in America and had even reached Europe, as Malcolm Gladwell says, “following the trail of the hundreds of thousands of American soldiers who crossed the Atlantic that spring for the closing offensives of the First World War.”

That initial wave of the Spanish Flu was bad enough to be noteworthy – 237 men at Fort Riley contracted pneumonia from the influenza, and of those 237, 38 died—but it was not considerably out of the ordinary. According to Jeffery Taubenberger of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, “Illness rates were high, but death rates in most locales were not appreciably above normal.” This changed over the summer, when a second wave of influenza began in Brest, in northwestern France, and quickly found itself carried to Boston by returning American soldiers and to Sierre Leone in steerage on the British navy ship the H.M.S. Mantua. The second wave spread globally between September to November of 1918. It was highly fatal. By the time the Spanish Flu subsided, it had killed more than fifty million people.

It’s hard to conceptualize numbers of that magnitude. Likewise, it’s had to really come to terms with the level of panic and terror the Spanish Flu brought with it. Consider historian Alfred Crosby’s account of the pandemic reaching Alaska:

On or about November 1 the virus reached the finest medium for its propagation in Nome and vicinity, the city’s Eskimo village. Few Eskimos escaped infection. In a single eight-day period 162 of them died. Some Eskimos, hounded by superstitious horror, fled from cabin to cabin, infecting increasing numbers with disease and panic. The temperature fell below freezing, and when rescuers broke into cabins from whose chimney came no sign of smoke, they found many, sometimes whole families, who had been too sick to renew their fires and who had frozen to death. When a number of Eskimos were rounded up from their separate cabins and placed in a single large building so they could be cared for efficiently, several of them responded to what they apparently perceived as incarceration in a death house by hanging themselves.

In “Epidemic and Peace, 1918,” Crosby shares the harrowing account of a Philadelphia nurse who came upon “a husband dead in the same room where his wife lay with newborn twins. It had been twenty-four hours since the death and the births, and the wife had had no food but an apple which happened to lie within reach.”

“If you autopsied some of the worst cases, you’d find the lungs very red and very firm,” says Taubenberger. “The lungs are normally filled with air, so they are compressible. These would be very heavy and very dense. It’s the difference between a dry sponge and a wet sponge. A normal piece of lung would float in water because it was basically filled with air. These would sink. Microscopically, you would see that the alveoli would be filled with fluid, which made it impossible to breathe. These people were drowning. There was so much liquid in the air spaces of their lungs that patients would have bloody fluid coming out of their noses. When they died, it would often drench the bedsheets.”

In a typical outbreak of the flu, the very young and the very old are the most likely to die from the disease or its complications—put another way, influenza has a U-shaped mortality curve. “The curve of influenza deaths by age at death has historically, for at least 150 years, been U-shaped,” says Taubenberger. Mortality “peaks in the very young and the very old, with a comparatively low frequency of deaths at all ages in between.” The Spanish Flu was different. Rather than being U-shaped, the mortality curve of the Spanish Flue was W-shaped: similar to the U-shaped curve but with the addition of a third distinct peak of deaths in young adults between twenty and forty years of age. Says Taubenberger, “Age-specific death rates in the 1918 pandemic exhibited a distinct pattern that has not been documented before or since.”

W-shaped curve

U- and W- shaped combined influenza and pneumonia mortality, by age at death, per 100,000 persons in each age group, United States, 1911-1918. From Taubenberger.

“This wasn’t just a deadly infectious disease,” says Gladwell. “It was a deadly infectious disease with the singular and terrifying quality of being better at killing the young and healthy than the old and the infirm.”

3.
There are numerous factors that contribute to the proclivity of rape. An important one, for example, is the acceptance of what are known as rape myths. Rape myths are defined as prejudicial, stereotyped, or false beliefs about rape, rape victims, and rapists. Examples of rape myths include fallacies like “Only bad women get raped,” or “Husbands cannot rape their wives,” or even, “Rapists are sex-starved, insane, or both.” According to Neil Malamuth, a psychologist at UCLA and one of the foremost experts on sexual aggression, “beliefs in rape myths are more likely to be held by rapists than by males in the general population.”

Is this relationship causal or merely correlative? Martha Burt of the Urban Institute, and the academic who pioneered the rape myth acceptance scale, believes that rape myth acceptance play an important role in causing rape. Such beliefs justify a rapist’s behavior, she says, and they act as “psychological releasers or neutralizers, allowing potential rapists to turn off social prohibitions against injuring or using others when they want to commit an assault.” Similar beliefs held by the social circle of an assailant may likewise contribute indirectly to such assaults, Burt argues, since they effectively create excuses for the assailant’s actions. It is easier for young men to internalize a message like, “Women get drunk when they want to have sex” when it is reinforced by their confidants.

Rape myth acceptance, however, is far from the only risk factor for proclivity to rape. Malamuth realized that a certain subset of high-risk men never see those risks turn into action. A key difference, he found, between men likely to rape who do and men likely to rape who do not is sensitivity, that is, whether the man is “self-centered” or “nurturant.” “When a high-risk individual is self-centered,” says Malamuth, “he is more likely to actually be sexually aggressive. In contrast, the high-risk individual who is sensitive to others’ feelings is not likely to actually aggress sexually.” Empathy, then, has a moderating effect on sexual aggression—like British author Ian McEwan says, imaging what it is like to be someone other than yourself is the essence of compassion and the core of our humanity. It keeps us from doing horrible things.

Alcohol also has a scaling effect on sexual aggression. “Half of all sexual assault perpetrators are under the influence of alcohol at the time of the assault,” says Antonia Abbey, a psychologist at Wayne State University. According to Abbey, the causal relationship here is well-understood: “There are two primary mechanisms through which alcohol can increase the likelihood of sexual violence in a given situation: pharmacological effects of alcohol and psychological beliefs about alcohol.” Under the influence of alcohol, people have a reduced capacity to “integrate multiple sources of information and make complex decisions.” Or, as Malcolm Gladwell put it, “Alcohol makes the thing in the foreground even more salient and the thing in the background disappear. That’s why drinking makes you think you are attractive when the world thinks otherwise: the alcohol removes the little constraining voice from the outside world that normally keeps our self-assessments in check.” That is, inebriation creates a narrowed focus—myopia—and a reduction of impulse control. “Alcohol facilitates aggression not by ‘stepping on the gas’ but by paralyzing the brakes,” says Brad Bushman, a psychologist at Ohio State who has written about the effects of alcohol on aggressive behavior. According to Bushman, alcohol consumption is particularly effective at facilitating aggression, affecting it as much or more than other social and nonsocial behaviors.

But some of the effects of alcohol are caused by our cultural beliefs about alcohol. Widely held beliefs induce placebo effects. “American culture glamorizes alcohol consumption,” says Abbey, “and links it to sexual desire, sexual performance, aggression, and other types of disinhibited behavior.” To the people who wanted to act aggressively, alcohol gives them implicit permission to do so. At the same time, the intoxicated are more likely to interpret the behavior of others in the light of these cultural expectations. To the drunk, says Abbey, “a smile is more likely to be viewed as a sign of sexual attraction and a mildly negative comment is more likely to be interpreted as grounds for an aggressive response.” Each culture, including our own, has created a particular set of codes for what it means to be drunk, and many of ours facilitate sexually aggressive behaviors. “Persons learn about drunkenness what their societies import to them, and comporting themselves in consonance with these understandings, they become living confirmations of their society’s teachings,” the anthropologists Craig MacAndrew and Robert Edgerton say in their book, Drunken Comportment. “Since societies, like individuals, get the sorts of drunken comportment that they allow, they deserve what they get.”

This is not to say that alcohol creates sexual aggression where it didn’t exist previously, nor does it excuse the violent of their violent acts. Some studies have shown that men at high risk for sexual aggression are those most affected by alcohol consumption. Abbey underscores this point. “Alcohol increases sexual violence only when perpetrators are near their violence threshold. Most men are expected to have a high threshold for using violence to obtain sex, thus even when intoxicated, they are unlikely to cross that line. Other men … have such a low threshold for violence that alcohol is not needed for them to become sexually violent. And for a subgroup of men who are near their violence threshold, intoxication may push them over that line.” Context causes shifts in our threshold for many activities, and alcohol consumption plays into that. “Alcohol is one of many factors that increase the likelihood that a man will feel comfortable forcing sex on an unwilling woman. For some men, on some occasions, it can be the ‘final straw’ that produces sexual violence, but its effects cannot be understood in isolation.”

4.
In the normal course of a flu season, the milder strains of the virus tend to prevail. Those infected with more severe, nasty strains of the diseases tend to get more severe, nasty symptoms, and as a result, they tend to isolate themselves at home as they convalesce. Those who contract milder strains are less likely to disrupt their vocational and social commitments, so they continue to go into work, they continue to shop, and they continue to be out and about in public, increasing the odds that they’ll pass their illness onto someone else.

In the case of the Spanish Flu, the First World War turned this pattern on its head. Soldiers were packed tightly into barracks during basic training and then into ocean liners transporting them across the Atlantic. Some 30,000 American soldiers died en route to France. Once they arrived at the battlefield, the epidemiological profile only made matters worse. “As soldiers in the trenches became sick,” says Carol Byerly, “the military evacuated them from the front lines and replaced them with healthy men. This process continuously brought the virus into contact with new hosts—young, healthy soldiers in which it could adapt, reproduce, and become extremely virulent without danger of burning out.” Meanwhile, the evacuated ill would end up in field hospitals, spreading their illness to the injured, some of whom were returning home. This cycle spread waves of infected and infectious men across the world. Socio-political reality reversed the standard progression of influenza. From the trenches of France, as Byerly put it, the Spanish Flu would “travel the highways of war, circling the globe.”

Obviously, war is not the only thing that creates such unusual social arrangements. Any community built around a particular trait—that is to say, any group of people displaying either an artificial or intentional selection bias—will have unique susceptibilities to various outcomes. If someone throws a rock through a window at a state fair, a riot is unlikely to break out. But a group gathered together in their outrage over a police shooting is composed almost entirely of people who are furious, exasperated, and impatient about persistent injustice. A shattered window, in that context, invites a very different reaction. Likewise, if you try to create a spontaneous dance party in the middle of a school lunch hour, it will be comparatively more difficult to get kids to start dancing than it is when they are intentionally attending a dance. Economists trying to explain why immigrants in certain cohorts earn more than American citizens working similar jobs have leaned on self-selection as the explanation: the sort of person motivated to go through the immigration process are more likely to also have traits that favor excellent job performance.

The college social environment compounds the self-selection process. Students admitted to various colleges tend to have other traits in common, things like race, relative age and home location. Consider, for instance, the fact that 65% of students enrolled at the University of Minnesota come from Minnesota, and an additional 15% hail from the Upper Midwest. 70% are white. In comparison, 80% of students at the University of St. Thomas, a private Catholic liberal arts college in St. Paul, are white and 95% of them are culled from the Midwest. Nationwide, more than 85% of full-time college students on traditional campuses are under 25. Not all colleges conform to these profiles, but the ones that don’t have peculiarities of their own. Many Ivy League schools favor the children of alumni: Harvard’s legacy admission rate is around 30%, four times the rate for non-legacy students. Intentional or not, Harvard selects for Harvardness, and the University of Minnesota selects for Midwesternness. The self-selection process hardly stops at admissions. Any subgroup—clubs, intramural sports teams, academic concentrations—results in further self-selection.

This is not inherently a bad thing: there is nothing wrong with creating groups that can be categorized with increasing specificity. I know I enjoyed my time with Upper Midwestern, academic, Christian, athletic, relaxed Frisbee players. The net effect, however, is that the more narrowly-tailored the selection process, the more we also select for correlated traits. This is the basic premise behind statistical sampling procedures: when we rely on demonstrably non-random samples to measure something, we may be measuring something correlated with the sample instead. If we want to establish drug use rates among teenagers, taking a sample of high school students may overrepresent the problem by ignoring the home schooled.

Studies have shown that men who join fraternities are more likely to commit rape than men in the general student population, with one showing they are three times more likely to commit rape than other men on campus. John Foubert, one of the authors of the latter study, offered an important insight on this result. “Before they got to college, fraternity men were no different from other male students. They committed the same number of incidents of sexual assaults before college. But here’s the difference. Guys who joined a fraternity then committed three times as many sexual assaults as those who didn’t join. It is reasonable to conclude that fraternities turn men into guys more likely to rape.” There is something about frat life that cultivates sexual violence.

Perhaps there is an element of self-selection bias at play. That is, perhaps when selecting for frat-worthiness, those groups are also accidentally selecting for men with a low rape threshold. Theoretically, this plays out well: fraternities select for 1) men typically between the ages of 18-20, 2) who are willing to engage in high-risk drinking (at a rate of roughly 80% among frat members), and 3) are drawn to a cultural presumption of frat life, i.e., a lifestyle with rampant partying and hook-ups. Is it hard to believe that this population correlates heavily with high self-centeredness/low empathy and an espousal of rape myths? Foubert argues that frat members receive “male peer support” to commit acts of sexual violence. In such an environment, all the risk factors for sexual violence coalesce in terrifying synergy, and a group of high-risk/low-threshold men need only the feather-light provocation of a zero-threshold actor to give them contextual permission for their own acts of sexual aggression. A individual act of sexual aggression in isolation is horrific enough as it is. A torrent of such acts committed with the perceived approval of the people nearby is a breeding ground for tragedy.

5.
There is a caveat to this idea. Fraternity membership is comparatively low. Even though members commit rape at three times the rate of the general student population, in a typical school non-fraternity members outnumber fraternity members by an average rate of eight to one. Due to the size difference in populations, non-fraternity members commit nearly three times as many rapes as frat members. And that’s at a typical college. In schools with lower fraternity enrollment, like the University of Minnesota, the general population aggregates fourteen times the number of rapes.† As much as people may find it convenient to push the blame onto frat culture, it cannot directly explain the majority of campus rapes.

But what if the same self-selection factors are at play in other aspects of campus life? Perhaps other sub-cultures attract high-risk/low-threshold actors. Perhaps the culture of binge-drinking and the archetypal conception of the collegiate experience create a selection bias in general and influences how certain types of men congregate at certain types of parties. We should expect many of those high-risk/low-threshold actors to flock to fraternities, but not all of them (and, conversely, it should be noted that not all frat members are at high-risk for rape). This is the crux of the issue: when angry, frustrated people get together, it is more likely to result in a riot than having isolated malcontents isolated in otherwise happy crowds. But a riot describes group behavior. Those isolated few may still smash some windows.

Imagine a house party at a college campus. “Blurred Lines” is blaring through stereo speakers. There is a keg on the back porch and a kid with a sideways hat and curly blonde hair is operating the tap. People are dancing in the living room, talking animatedly through plumes of cigarette smoke in the kitchen, and discarding red Solo cups on every visible surface. Scattered through the crowd, there are people making out. At some point, with an audible laugh and a shit-eating grin, some kid gropes a girl in spite of her wobbly gait and the disgusted look on her face. His friends laugh. It’s not hard to imagine what happens next.

 

It should be noted that this is a mathematical calculation based on the population sizes compared to the presumed rate of rape in both populations. Foubert’s 3:1 rate was assumed for these calculations.

Old School

Perceptions of party life are shaped by culture and therefore act as self-fulfilling prophecies.

 

Should We #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend?

When I think over the filmic media I tend to consume, I can’t help but notice an unfortunate trend: friendship, particularly male friendship, is hard to find. If Walter White has a friend in Breaking Bad, it would be Elliot Schwartz – and the last vestiges of the friendly part of their relationship is twenty years in the past and buried underneath the relational rubble of professional and romantic rivalry. In Mad Men, Don Draper’s only friend is Roger Sterling, but it might be more accurate to regard them as drinking buddies or companions of circumstance. In The Walking Dead, Rick’s friendship with Shane turns to attempted murder within four episodes. Movies and shows that portray male friendship tend to be comedies where the relationship is both strange and borderline homoerotic (think JD and Turk in Scrubs, Troy and Abed in Community, or Peter and Sydney in I Love You, Man) or adapted from non-contemporary literature, the most obvious examples being Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson or Sam and Frodo.

That is what troubles me about the Twitter campaign to #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend: it redefines the rare portrayal of a loving male friendship as one of latent homosexual desire. This thought process is summarized well by Jen Yamato: “Give the Marvel superhero a man to love,” she says in The Daily Caller, “because he pretty much already has one.” Many in the Marvel audience, and indeed, audiences at large, seem to have trouble conceptualizing such a relationship between two men as anything other than erotic in nature. But C.S. Lewis obliterated this fallacy in The Four Loves: “Those who cannot conceive Friendship as a substantive love but only as a disguise or elaboration of Eros betray the fact that they have never had a Friend.”

Having positive examples of loving, healthy friendship is both necessary and beautiful – and increasingly so for the target demographic of superhero movies, namely teenaged and young-adult males. The notion that one can care passionately about another human being without the desire or possibility of sex with that person has gone missing from pop culture narratives. So by all means, give Captain America a boyfriend – the superhero genre has been a powerful genre for themes of gay rights and equality. But it shouldn’t be Bucky. Instead, let’s preserve the idea that friendship and romantic love are different things, both rare and valuable, both with the ability to inspire courage and self-sacrifice.

CapNBucky.jpg

 

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.

The Walking Dead Needs More Sex

It occurred to me last night that there is not enough sex in The Walking Dead.

Let me explain.

I’m not saying that I think AMC’s hit show should have more nudity or titillation – though this wouldn’t offend me, I also don’t think it would add any substance to the series. I’m not looking for depictions of sex, per se, but rather an acknowledgement that the characters in the series would be having sex regularly. Through six seasons, we’ve had roughly half a dozen implied sex acts, and these have involved only a handful of the cast: Rick and Lori, Lori and Shane, Glenn and Maggie, Andrea and the Governor, Rosita and Abraham, and Rick and Michonne. (Perhaps there are examples that have escaped my recollection, these are just the examples that spring to mind like a Catholic rab…. never mind. But the fact that the show has only given us a couple more romantic pairings just underscores how chaste those romances have been.)

In season five, Daryl and Beth fled from the attack on the prison together, believing all their friends and family were likely dead. They proceed to survive a number of close encounters with the undead, including a span where they hide together in the trunk of a car, open up to each other emotionally, and eventually get drunk on moonshine near the warmth of a fire. A virginal hug is the extent of their physical intimacy.

Give me a break.

Never mind the fact that a heightened state of fear severely amplifies sexual attraction, this is just one of the show’s many missed opportunities for character building. The characters in The Walking Dead occupy a world where virtually all government and social institutions have broken down, but by and large the deviations from Judeo-Christian values have been relegated to the show’s antagonists. Sure, Rick gets more and more willing to kill people he perceives to be a threat to his community, but that’s the extent of it. That the show never bothers to ask the question of each of its characters, now that the only constraints on their behavior are life and death, “How have you changed?” is one of its most glaring failures.

Let me give a concrete example. In season two, Lori discovers that she’s pregnant. Uncertain whether the father is Rick, her husband, or Shane, the man she slept with when she believed Rick to be dead, she considered inducing an abortion. Maggie confronts her on this dilemma, and the whole scenario plays out in a single episode.

In season six, Maggie becomes pregnant. The show greets this development with a shrug. It raises the stakes some, I suppose, but it’s not interesting. But hat if the writers had Maggie struggle with the realities of rearing and raising a child in such a world? Never mind the fact that there is such limited medical care, the fact that a crying baby would be a dinner bell to any zombie in the area would means that any child poses a major safety hazard to every character in the community. Most Americans agree that risk to the mother’s life is a legitimate reason to at least consider terminating a pregnancy. What if the child is a risk to the life of literally every person you know?

Letting Maggie wrestle with that question – and showing her tempted by an idea she found disgusting under different circumstances – would add depth to her character. We would have a better understanding of the strength of her beliefs. We would know whether or not her repulsion to abortion was an intense personal belief or just a reflection of living in her father’s Southern Christian household. And we would gain empathy for her character as she learned about herself. William Faulkner famously said, “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.” How much more conflict could one ask for? Maggie would be split between belief and practicality, safety and danger, love for an unborn child against the love for your friends. What a fierce battle we never got to witness.

When I say there’s not enough sex in The Walking Dead, I guess what I’m really saying is that this show ignores the storytelling possibilities given by the obliteration of the concept of a normal human life. The total breakdown of civilization would change everything about human interactions. The imminence of death would make all forms of intimacy that much more valuable. And common. The showrunners can afford to pass on such narrative low-hanging fruit about as much as our favorite survivors could pass on literal low-hanging fruit.

 

Rick

Rick Grimes has a killer creepy gaze

On Penguins and Tinder

1.

Picture a flock of hungry penguins gathered at the edge of an ice floe. Despite the urgency of their hunger, each individual penguin is hesitant to dive into the water: where there are small fish, bigger fish are likely nearby. And while the prospect of a meal is tantalizing, the possibility of a killer whale or Great White shark lurking beneath the surface is too much of a risk to ignore. On the other hand, if they all stay out of the water, the rookery will starve. “In such circumstances,” writes Thomas Eisenmann, “individual rationality may lead a group to forfeit attractive opportunities, for example, a predator-free meal.” Eventually, some intrepid penguin makes like Squints Palledorous and hurls himself into the water.

In mathematical game theory, situations such as these are known as first-mover dilemmas. Being the first to act often confers an advantage while also increasing risks. Being first to offer terms in a negotiation, for example, allows you control the set point. Ask for too little, however, and you could leave money on the table, whereas if you ask for too much and you might alienate the other negotiator. Betting first in a hand of poker can convey a strong hand, letting you win an uncontested pot. On the other –ahem – hand, you might be betting into someone with a made hand and losing more money than necessary. The first mover has to balance the high probability of a good result with the low probability risk of a catastrophic one.

2.

Around Thanksgiving, I took a friend of mine out for drinks at Marvel Bar – as a University of Minnesota student from Sioux Falls, she’d never been to our flagship speakeasy. (Whenever I take someone to Marvel for their first experience, I suggest that they order the Oliveto. “Suggest” is putting it too gently: I order it for them and tell them they can trade for my drink if they don’t like it. I’ve never been asked to surrender my drink.) As we sat in a candlelit booth and sipped our drinks, she told me something that surprised me: in her entire time in college, she’d been asked out in person a single time.

“It was always through texts or Facebook messages,” she said as she rolled her eyes. “When someone finally asked me to my face, I was so surprised I didn’t even know how to respond.” My friend is pre-med, with a sneaky, dry sense of humor and a striking resemblance to Jennifer Lawrence, if Jennifer Lawrence had mahogany brown hair and a likeable personality. If I would expect any of my friends to have no shortage of fawning male attention, it’d be this one.

There’s no doubt that mobile technology, social media, and dating apps have changed the game in a major way. We have immediate access to myriad potential romantic or sexual partners at our fingertips at all times. And since apps like Tinder or Bumble reduce dating to a simple binary (swipe right or swipe left), some people have started to employ the strategy of simply liking (swiping right) every profile they encounter in order to maximize their dating pool.

At the same time, technology helps serve as a barrier to risk. The people who only swipe right take for granted that if they match with enough people, sooner or later they’ll encounter someone who is willing to put in more effort than they will. And while you only get one shot to ask someone out in person – when so very much could go wrong, from shaking hands to cracking voices to wimping out entirely – you can endlessly edit and workshop a text message until it says exactly what you want it to say. And if the answer is no, the rejection can be suffered in private dignity.

(It seems to me, though, that this is the equivalent of penguins throwing rocks in the water in the hopes that a fish will splash onto their ice floe: if you try it a thousand times, it might work once or twice. And while there’s no risk of getting torn apart by a shark, you might have to wait a while for that strategy to work out – that is, if those little splashes haven’t scared all the fish away.)

All of this information points us in the same direction: In spite of the risk, it’s in your best interest to take that risk head on. As more and more people select a risk-averse approach to dating, those willing to dive in head first differentiate themselves even further than they already would and the first-mover advantage becomes all the more significant. In game theory, this is known as the “dominant strategy.” Barry Schwartz, in The Pardox of Choice, says, “When asked about what they regret most when they look back on their lives as a whole, people tend to identify failures to act.” Besides, getting torn to shreds by an orca seems a far radder way to die than slowly starving to death.

 

Penguin

Three Things to Remember About the Trayvon Martin Case

On the evening of February 26, 2012, a local neighborhood watch captain named George Zimmerman from Sanford, Florida, called 911 to report what he perceived to be suspicious activity. When police arrived at the scene nine minutes later, 17-year old Trayvon Martin lay face down, dying of a gunshot wound. Zimmerman had injuries to his face and head. Martin was pronounced dead at the scene, while Zimmerman was treated for his injuries by EMTs and taken into police custody. He was questioned for five hours and then released, the police initially concluding that Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense was plausible. Following media fury, Zimmerman was eventually charged with murder under a new prosecutor. These are the most basic, skeletal-level facts of the case, condensed largely from the Wikipedia page dedicated to it. There are huge gaps in this narrative.
As you discuss this case with the people around you and think about it on your own, there are three points I’d like you to keep in mind.

1) How we fill those gaps has almost nothing to do with facts and everything to do with our ideologies. When we first heard this story, we identified quickly with one of the two men, turning one into a protagonist and the other into a villain. This initial reaction makes all the difference in how we interpret the data the rest of the way. Do you identify with the man you see looking out for his community and insert a narrative of him being a decent human being, trying to prevent a crime in progress, only to be pounced on? Or do you identify with the teenager, enjoying a little rainfall to go with his Skittles, and insert a narrative of a defenseless kid, unfairly profiled and targeted for violence?

2) Experiences with racial profiling alter how we view these events. I have no idea what it’s like to be a black man in America. When I’ve been pulled over, I could safely assume it was because I had broken a traffic law. But there are those who can’t make the same assumption. Racial profiling happens in a big way in this country. For those who have ever been unfairly detained or accused of a crime based solely on their skin color, it is easy to see this case through that lens. Now, you may say it’s wrong or unfair to do that. But we all bring experiences and assumptions along with everything we observe and interpret. Of course it’s not wrong to do that. But we need to be aware of it when we do.

3) This only became national news because of a political agenda. Do you think it’s a coincidence that a polarizing and energizing issue emerged in a swing state in an election year? Or that the Department of Justice secretly sent workers to help organize and manage the anti-Zimmerman protests? Do you think it was by accident that NBC edited the audio of Zimmerman’s 911 call to make him sound like he was focusing on Martin’s race? Any of these things by themselves would be reasonable to ignore, but in concert it plays a pretty clear picture: persons looking out for political interests ramped up the tension in Sanford to advance their agenda.

Trayvon Martin was less than 100 yards from his father’s house when he was shot and killed. His father, Tracy, would not learn of his son’s death until the next day. I keep thinking about that, about being less than a frisbee’s throw away from where someone I love is bleeding to death, and not knowing about it. I can’t imagine how heart wrenching it would be to deal with at all, but to think, “He was so close, and he didn’t know what was going on.” And then I get on Facebook, and I see dozens of people who claim absolute certainty. George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder charges by a jury, six women presented all the known facts of the case. We might as well be debating a coin toss.

Let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant

“What new mystery is this? What blessed backwardness? The Immeasurable One is held but does not resist!”
— mewithoutYou

A few nights ago, I prayed for something specific. As I did it, I caught myself thinking it might be too specific, and I might want to leave God a little wiggle room. It is a seriously foolish man who believes in God but doubts his marksmanship. And as a reminder of that – and, ya know, an answer to prayer – that specific, precise thing happened. It even happened more or less in the exact physical location I imagined as I prayed. It was uncanny.
Still more that I didn’t remember the prayer for another hour or so. Still, small voice indeed.
Now comes the problem: I don’t know what to do with the information. I don’t know what it means. It’s as though I’ve read the next line in a book and I’m trying to predict the ending. I don’t even know the genre of the story. I think that is the oppressive voice many of us hear. Rather than being reassured that I am indeed a component in some design – or as Fleet Foxes put it, “a functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me” – I am depressed to not know where things are going. Maybe something significant is in the works. But maybe I just needed a reminder that the Almighty is not bound by the limits I put on myself.