Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Third Degree Racism

I think we do a terrible disservice when we slap labels on people for "who they are" rather than "what they've done." We see a Trump supporter with "Put the white back in the white house," we see Trump's tacit approval, and we see another person vote for Trump. That person must "be a racist". Not "they're acting in a racist way," not "they're tacitly supporting racism." Racism is part of the person's nature, worthy of shame and ridicule simply because they voted for Trump. Maybe in a technical sense it's true. The word "racism" has a subtler meaning among academics and the socially conscious. But most people don't have this understanding of the word by default. When you call someone a racist that implies, to them and to others, that you think they are as worthy of contempt as the people assaulting minorities.

We only hold people absolutely culpable when they knowingly, intentionally, and willfully kill someone. With 1st degree murder, there has to be evidence that the killing was intended while the killer had a cool head. These are the people who kill for pleasure or personal gain.

In 2nd degree murder, the willfulness and knowing are called into question. Drug use, fits of rage, etc. disconnect people from their better judgement and cause them to act in ways that go directly against their own will. They are culpable for allowing themselves to become impaired. We blame them for the murder, but we recognize that it's not on the same level as someone who spends a week plotting to kill someone.

3rd degree murder (manslaughter) generally means there was no intention or willfulness to kill, but a reasonable person in the same shoes would have been able to prevent it (that our legal system is built so heavily on what a "reasonable" person would do is a whole other can of worms).

Then there are other classifications for killing that aren't even called murder. They acknowledge that the killer is responsible for the death, but that there are other factors that mitigate both fault and responsibility. They may only be subject to civil penalties rather than criminal.

I wish we used this kind of categorization in our interactions with people. Trump voters are indeed racist, but to varying degrees. Varying enough that if we could measure people's Racism Quotient, there would surely be a significant overlap between Clinton's supporters and Trump's. The only way we will be able to win over the people we need is if we don't alienate them. The best way to alienate them is to display that their actions are unforgivable and forever label them as "racists", "white supremacists", etc.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

A Romantic Ending

In order to see what Trump offers as beneficial, you need to have confidence in "the American dream." The ability to have that confidence, to truly believe that anyone can reach any level of success just by working hard enough with no consideration given to chance or starting conditions, is a privilege. It's not about how financial successful you are now, but how in control of your own fate you believe yourself to be.

People who grow up in parts of America or otherwise under conditions where they can't believe in that dream, where it's obvious that the "others" and "have-nots" are being forced to remain "others" and "have-nots," and where your starting conditions all but guarantee the path your life will take, they don't have the luxury of soothing their insecurities with the notion that everything will be OK if they just work hard enough.

But this isn't necessarily about Trump in particular or conservatives in general. The mentality that all you have to do to succeed is to put your mind & body to work in just the right way, to put your own interests first with the sincere belief that the result will be prosperity for everyone, to go through life actively making yourself oblivious to the day-to-day sufferings of the people just "over the hill" but displaying self-righteousness for your minuscule efforts to fix global, systemic problems that need an entirely different way of operating our economy...

These descriptions fit equally well for a lot of the left wing new agey types. The folks who wrote-in for Sanders rather than voting for Clinton to make a statement. The ones who deny vaccines for their children and yell at my wife to stay inside from the chemtrails when all she wanted to do was admire a beautiful sunset. The ones who assign orders of magnitude more value to instinct than to objective reality (especially when it comes to children).

America idolizes Romanticism (the philosophy, not the courtship rituals). When you start with the fundamental world views of conservatism (in-dependence is the path to prosperity, things are fine the way they are) and liberalism (inter-dependence is the path to prosperity, we should always be trying to change), Romanticism distorts them in ways that emphasize the differences and make it harder to reach a shared understanding.

Romanticism sets up expectations that are doomed to fail for the vast majority of people, much like the promises of multilevel marketing schemes (exponentials are a bitch). Also like MLM, the most insidious part of these expectations is the idea that you only have yourself to blame for failure. If only you had sold more, if only you worked faster, if only you could find the right words, if only you weren't such a loser. This clearly has a depressing effect on the overall mood of the country.

From an anthropological perspective, it sucks that entire ways of life are lost to the ages. From a personal perspective, it sucks more to have the world as you know it crumble around you, and even more when the folks from distant lands who control most of the water and all international commerce are making all the rules for you. And describe you "from an anthropological perspective."

But this nostalgia and attachment to the present/past is doing all manner of measurable harm up to and including killing people. Conservatism demands that we maintain bigotry. That we perceive all suggestions to change as threats (unless they roll back previous change). That the way things were is better than the way things are or the way things seem to be headed. That the world is too complicated for us to make any rational choices on a national/global level. Liberalism is much more open to change, but is vulnerable to similar failings from a different vantage point.

We need to have a sit down with our egos, take a nice big dose of reality, and realize that there's no way we're going to get through this without working together. Reality, nature, God, whatever you want to call it, has set up a game with all kinds of traps and pitfalls, Pandora's boxes, great rewards and great suffering. Contrary to much received "wisdom", that game's rules are consistent and generally predictable. By asking the right questions we can learn how the universe behaves in ways that Romantics believe we can't. By testing our assumptions and calling our beliefs into question, we can make changes that produce a measurable improvement to everyone's quality of life (not just the people with the cities). There's no way we can do that alone; we are too imperfect.

Us vs. The World gives us much better odds than Us vs. Each Other vs. The World. But you can't just sit there and expect everything to be OK without accepting change and relying on others.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Elephants, Donkeys, and Voting, Oh My!

A lot of Democratic voters (read: much of my Facebook feed) have expressed extreme surprise, if not genuine shock, at Trump's win. I wonder if their level of surprise is correlated with how they voted in the primaries. Much of Sanders' support came from people trying to serve the same need as the people who support Trump: the need not to feel consistently ignored by the people in power. My hypothesis is that Sanders supporters who voted for Clinton have no small helping of "told you so" to mitigate their "OMFGWTFBBQ!!!!111"

To be clear, the level of sadness and rage is completely understood, and I share it to the extent that a privileged, straight, white, cis male can. However, I can't say it came as a surprise.

Just before the election, Nate Silver seemed to be defending FiveThirtyEight's suggestion that Trump had a significant chance of winning. My trust in the quants grows stronger.

It's ironic and sad that so many people thought Trump would be the end of the Republican party, when it seems to be the exact opposite. But hopefully the level of success of both Sanders and Trump will be a wake-up call to everyone working to keep the status quo.

Speaking of status quo, there's the Electoral College. I know a lot of people will feel betrayed by the system because Clinton seems to have won more popular votes (albeit narrowly). On the one hand, in a first-past-the-post, winner-take-all system that is inevitably reduced to 1 or 2 choices, we really are being failed by the system. But the problem isn't the electoral college itself. I actually think the electoral college is doing exactly what it's designed to do: limit the influence of states that happen to have a disproportionate share of the population due to the chaotic interactions of geography, economics, and time.

The simple fact is that much of the country wants something that Clinton couldn't offer but Trump is willing to promise. National frustration with DC and Wall Street is at an all time high. Confused as we might be wondering why people believe he'll actually improve things for them, he definitely offers "something different."

But the problem isn't the voters or the electoral college, it's the way we actually express our votes. There were several candidates besides Trump and Clinton who many people would've been happy to see as President, even if they ultimately voted for a major candidate. But the way we vote, where every person gets a single "Yes" to assign to a candidate, has been proven mathematically to lead to a two-party (or one-party) system over time, and to minimize voter satisfaction.

Wouldn't it be nice if instead we could say "I would be OK with these people being president, but not these ones"? Or even better: "I really like this lady, I'd be OK with that guy, but NO WAY do i want HIM in office." In a hypothetical race, Bernie could still be on the ticket without taking votes from Clinton, people could vote for Stein, Johnson, or that guy from Utah without feeling like they wasted their vote. Even write-in candidates would have a chance of winning, if they reached a minimum share of the vote.

This kind of voting, known in various forms as approval voting, range voting, score voting, is in use at various levels of government all over the US and the world. The cool thing is that there is nothing in the constitution that dictates how popular votes are counted, only that the states pick electors for the electoral college based on the results. That means this change can happen in a grass-roots way, much like marijuana legalization (see what I did there?). We don't even need a constitutional amendment for this to work.

If you can't readily imagine the kind of difference this would make or are curious to learn more, have a look at http://rangevoting.org/. There is everything from a simple high level overview down to thoroughly sourced arguments and original research. As I mentioned earlier, our current voting system has been shown to lead to a minimum of voter satisfaction. Not just suboptimal; one yes vote per person, first past the post, winner take all is worse than every other democratic voting system as far as producing outcomes that satisfy the most people. Even something as simple as changing it to "Yes/No" for each candidate makes a 'UGE difference.

Please consider bringing this up with your local, state, and national representatives. It's an achievable goal that would dramatically improve how Americans feel about their ability to be heard through their votes.