Wednesday, October 28, 2009

False Equivalence

You're a 10-year-old boy who's walking down the hall at school. Another boy walks alongside you, and he starts to insult you, calling you names as 10-year-olds do. You ignore him, but he keeps it up, and starts to shove you between insults. After tolerating this for as long as you can, finally, you shove him back. You exchange shoves for a few seconds, after which a teacher turns the corner and sees you.

"Cut that out, you two!"

Now you're really fuming, because you've been unjustly judged as equally guilty. I remember this sort of thing happening to me more than once as a child, and it would surprise me if this hadn't happened to nearly everyone at some point. In fairness, adults have a reasonable defense: most of the time, both children will simply point at each other and say, "he started it!" And in the case described above, there's no way for the teacher to know who did what. But, more importantly, most of the time children get the sense that the teacher (or parents) simply don't care.

Parents or teachers may resort to using false equivalence because they don't know, because they don't care, or because they don't want to be seen as taking sides (even if one side clearly has a better argument than the other). Creating a false equivalence allows you appear even-handed, and to avoid getting involved in the dispute.

This notion came to my mind today because it's a very important concept in the world of politics right now. The media is quite addicted to it because of the very two attributes mentioned at the end of the previous paragraph: the media desperately wants to appear even-handed, and wants to avoid getting involved in disputes. But as in the case with the two children, sometimes the facts of the case aren't equal. Sometimes one side is lying, and the other isn't. More often, one side is exaggerating a little, and the other is exaggerating wildly. The media would prefer to say, "there are many who say that both sides are exaggerating." The irony is that such reporting is itself a distortion of the truth, and exactly the sort of thing the media is supposed to avoid. But generally, if the media is forced to choose between factual accuracy and even-handedness, they'll choose the latter.

This post was inspired by a conversation with my wife about the current health care reform debate. Today, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that he will try to push a version of the bill that includes a public option for health care that states that don't want such an option can opt out of if they choose. I was explaining to her that this was the more 'liberal' option than others, and might not be able to get any Republican votes. This reminded me that it's common wisdom in Washington that any legislation, especially important legislation, should be seen as 'bipartisan', meaning that it should have the support of at the very least one person in the opposing party, and ideally, more. The problem is that it's very clear, and everyone in Washington knows, that the Republicans have made a considered decision to simply oppose anything that Obama does, whether or not it makes sense on the merits. They feel that if they work cooperatively with him, he'll get the credit for any success in bringing the economy back to health, and while it might benefit those who helped him individually, it won't benefit them collectively; Democrats would continue to control the House and the Senate. But if they resolutely oppose him, and the economy doesn't improve, they hope to ride back to power in 2010 and 2012 by charging that he and the Democrats failed to do what they said they would do. So, they've made a strategic decision to oppose him at every turn.

The problem is, then, that the media often points out that the bill isn't 'bipartisan' or that it 'lacks a single Republican vote' without noting that the Republicans have an institutional strategy not to cooperate with Obama. Granted, those who follow politics understand this, but many reading the paper don't, and failing to note this creates a false equivalence between partisanship now and partisanship thirty years ago (or even ten, when the Republicans were in charge but Democrats often cooperated with them) that unfairly makes Obama appear unconciliatory.

False equivalence also abounds when it comes to judging the media, especially Fox News. Fox News is rabidly right-wing in its opinion shows (whose hosts spread lies as if they were facts) and strongly right-leaning in its story selection and emphasis, whereas MSNBC is mostly left-wing in its opinion shows (whose hosts tack strongly left, but do not make up facts) though its morning show is moderately conservative, and its news is straight both in content and story selection and emphasis. Even so, it's very common for commentators to treat them as if they were mirror images of each other. In addition to the reasons mentioned above, it's also the case that the right wing has for many years been 'working the refs', complaining about anti-right bias to a much greater extent than it ever existed. Because they don't want to be accused of bias, media commentators don't like to point to right-wing bias even where it exists. Creating a false equivalence helps them avoid this criticism, and helps them appear even-handed, which the media very much prefers to do. So, as with the children, the facts of the matter take a backseat to the preferences of those judging them.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Cable Entertainment News

Yesterday I started seeing headlines on news websites about the 'balloon boy', the six-year-old who was thought to be trapped in a balloon that was drifting through the sky until it turned out he was hiding in his family's attic. Apparently, many Americans sat enthralled, glued to the cable news to see how the 'drama' turned out. After he was found, the news channels stayed on the story, focusing on the new question of whether the whole thing was a hoax.

Especially at times like this, it seems to me that CNN (Cable News Network) should change its name to CEN, for Cable Entertainment Network. 'The News You Want, Not the News You Need.' They go into overdrive when an attractive white woman goes missing. JonBenet, Michael Jackson (trial and death), O.J., Anna Nicole's death, and dozens of others that I'm mercifully forgetting have taken up thousands of hours of time, diligently keeping Americans informed on these vital issues. The reason, of course, is no mystery: these topics get ratings, and ratings mean money.

But are these stories 'news'? What constitutes 'news'? One can certainly argue that news is non-fiction events we want to know about, and it doesn't matter whether or not they're important in the scheme of things. The other argument is that news programs should give us information that helps us better understand what's going on in the our city, our country, and the world; information about events that will affect a great many people. The Zimbabwean prime minister may pull out of his governing coalition with the dictator Mugabe, an event that will have a great impact on that country. But in America, CNN dares not spend more than a minute on that, as a nation of Homer Simpsons, remotes in hand, may at any time exclaim "bor–ing!" and switch the channel.

Maybe it's not fair to call balloon-boy-type stories 'entertainment news', as we already have that. It of course isn't really news, but but rather, entertainment industry p.r. pretending to be news. There should be, for balloon-boy stories, a term that means 'information about real events that is quite interesting, but does not have and never will have any impact on your life, or on the lives of anyone but the people involved.' Maybe it could be called True Stories in the News ("The TSN Network!"), because that's what these are, interesting stories. When one of these stories hits, CNN, Fox, and MSNBC abandon any pretense of being news channels, and become TSN channels for as long as these stories get better ratings than whatever they usually report about. Now, that's fine; it's a free country. But I do think that when you do that, you give up your right to be annoyed if people snicker when you call yourself a news channel.

Of course, it's still possible to get real news, though on TV it's a little more difficult. The BBC and PBS, I believe, still do some good stuff, and there's always the print media, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post. Many blogs are stepping up and providing actual news, and many of the good blogs can be counted on to link to important stories. Even these media have failings, such as an America-centered worldview and wantonly granting anonymity for people to criticize political opponents, but they're still much better than what we see much of the time on CNN, Fox, and MSNBC. Still, the fact is that if Americans demanded more information about ethnic strife in Europe, the Chinese economy, analysis of why U.S. health care costs are out of control, British efforts to cover up U.S. torture, or Israeli settlement activity, we would get it. But we don't. As with most things, we get what we deserve, and we deserve what we get.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Criminal Justice (macro level: Deterrence, Rehabilitation, and Retribution)

I've heard it said that there are three reasons for sending people to prison: deterrence, rehabilitation, and retribution. In the previous post, I commented on the specifics of the Polanski case. Now, I want to consider the way these factors work in his case, and on society in general.

Deterrence, I believe, works in general: I'd guess that many people thought about committing crimes but didn't because of the danger of being caught and punished. Since many criminals are not caught, of course, this purpose is hardly perfect. Criminals are therefore either rational people who think they won't be caught and punished, or irrational people who don't sufficiently think through the notion of evading punishment. I'm sure this has been done, but I'd be interested to see research showing how many people want to commit crimes but were deterred because of the prospect of punishment. I certainly think we need to consider whether prison is a good deterrent for certain crimes, for example, child molestation. Do those who are attracted to children control their impulses because they know taking action will do great harm, or because of the possibility of punishment? I hope it's the former, but it's hard to say. I'd think that deterrence works better for economic crimes than violent ones, since our conscience is more likely to stop the latter than the former. In Polanski's case in particular, his going to prison may be a good idea, more for the bail-jumping than for the rape. (I don't think his going to prison is going to deter any rapists.)

Rehabilitation is a positive goal, and I'm sure it happens sometimes, but as is well known, the problem is that many people find themselves in situations that foster crime, and it's hard to escape those situations. They know they shouldn't hang out with old criminal buddies, but who should they hang out with? The pull of friendship is strong. A lot of social change needs to happen before rehabilitation on a wide scale can occur. Full employment would really help. But as it is, I think rehabilitation gets lip service at best. For Polanski, it's probably unnecessary at his age, but I'd want psychologists to spend some time with him.

Now, the last reason for sending someone to prison: retribution. This is the one of the three reasons for imprisoning people that I'm very uncomfortable with. Of course I understand the desire for retribution, especially on the part of the victims and their families, but it's difficult for me to see how we get any social value out of it, and doing it for its own sake seems to me to be somewhere on the 'morally wrong' spectrum. Jesus is supposed to have said something about turning the other cheek, something which the people who most loudly proclaim themselves 'true' Christians tend to forget. Making someone suffer for no purpose other than that they seem to deserve it... certainly doesn't seem admirable. It's difficult to think of another way to say it than that it feels wrong. I suppose a counter-argument would be that it's a statement of our priorities, our determination that crime can't be tolerated. I can understand that argument, but I can't agree with it. I think a better statement of our priorities would be to do everything possible to see that crime is reduced, so people in the future don't have to suffer.

In addition, if we unproductively imprison someone just because we want them to suffer because they did something to us, it only escalates the cycle of harm and violence that started them on this path. In a way this is a practical argument, but it feels a little moral as well. But for me practicality is important, so I don't want to do anything to make the situation worse.

I've argued before in this blog that public opinion shapes policy in negative ways due to public ignorance, apathy, and emotion; this is another example. People who argue that prison should mainly be about rehabilitation tend to get tarred as squishy-headed liberals by conservative politicians, who use people's anger at criminals as a way to get political support. Attempts to understand the criminal's point of view, necessary for any attempt at rehabilitation, are condemned as 'coddling' criminals. (After 9/11, anyone who dared to consider Al Qaeda's grievances was accused of wanting to give Osama Bin Laden 'therapy' rather than justice.) These attacks are effective, so politicians back off any attempt at large-scale rehabilitation programs, especially those that cost large amounts of money. (Ironically, if they work, they could save money on prison costs in the long run, but it's easy for opponents to ignore this.) So, the situation as it is continues, largely through the support of the citizens for policies that are unproductive, indeed counterproductive, in the long run.

Now, I'm far from an expert, and I haven't read any books by those who are. But it seems obvious that if our country has the highest incarceration rate in the world, we're doing something wrong. The Polanski case would seem to have little to do with the criminal justice system on a macro level, but the first step towards reforming the system is to consider what we hope to accomplish by incarcerating people in the first place. But what we really need is to have people, not only experts but especially voters, look at the situation with rationality rather than emotion. And the first step in that direction is for people to look at those who've broken the law not as scum to sweep away into the nearest pit and forget about, but as fellow humans who have had difficult lives, emotional problems, economic insecurity, or all of the above. (And for God's sake, we could free up a lot of prison space by having a drug policy that focused on public health rather than punishment.)

The last thing I want to mention, and the thing that may be the most crucial, is the trend towards privatizing prisons and the increasing political influence of the "correctional officers'" unions. (The finger quotes are because I don't think they're correcting a whole lot.) Especially in California, those unions have spent a lot of money trying to pass laws to keep prisoners in prison for a longer time: not because it improves public safety, but because it means increased job security for them. It's hard for me to think of a worse way to run a prison system than for those who control the inmates' lives to have an interest in keeping the prison population high. Rehabilitation would be bad for them! We should want fewer people in prison, but they want more. A lot of people vote for ballot initiatives supported (usually, originated) by the guards' union because it's advertised as 'tough on crime'. What I'm saying is not that we should let out dangerous criminals quickly, but that time and money should be spent on trying to see to it that they can get by without crime when they get out, and building a society that has less crime for structural and socioeconomic reasons. That could be done, but only if a lot of people supported the idea, and opposed those who wish to keep people (some of whom, such as drug offenders, have harmed no one) locked up for long stretches so they can have job security. As with any objective that requires thoughtful consideration of large numbers of people, it's hard for me to be optimistic.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Criminal Justice (micro level: Polanski)

A few weeks ago, the 76-year-old French/Polish film director Roman Polanski was arrested in Switzerland, having been a fugitive from U.S. law enforcement since 31 years ago he skipped bail just before he was scheduled to be sentenced for the rape of a girl who was a few weeks away from her fourteenth birthday. As I write this, his lawyers are trying to prevent his extradition. Personally, I don't care all that much whether he ends up in prison or not, but this case provides an excellent opportunity to examine various aspects of incarceration, both in the U.S. and in general.

First of all, the reason I don't care all that much is that for me personally, prison should be about prevention: keeping those who are a danger to society locked up. If I'm reasonably confident that the person isn't a real threat to commit another crime, I can accept their not being put in prison if there's a reason to avoid it. Not that there aren't other reasons to keep people in prison, but for me, that's the important one. I do find it extremely unlikely, at his age and with his past, that he will repeat that or any other crime. (Except bail-jumping, which seems a very likely prospect; I couldn't help but be extremely amused to see his lawyer arguing for his release on bail from his current incarceration. Oh, yeah, good idea...)

One group of reactions to this event is highly instructive: the reaction of the film community and the French intelligentsia, which demanded Polanski's release and criticized the U.S. for pursuing the case to such an extent so long after the fact. The only way I can agree with this argument is in considering the notion that if Polanski were not such a prominent person, the U.S. probably would have lost interest. On the other hand, it is generally only prominent people who have the ability and resources to skip bail, flee to another country, and be accepted there without fear of extradition. If I represented the U.S. justice system, I would try very hard to apprehend all bail-jumpers, prominent or not.

Other than that, I find it highly interesting, and nearly mystifying, that so many prominent people are publicly defending a man who no one disputes raped a 13-year-old. I'm like, huh? Or, we could say, WTF? I would say to anyone who defended him, would you say the same thing if he'd raped and sodomized your 13-year-old daughter? If yes, I feel for your daughter. If no, why is your daughter entitled to more consideration than anyone else's?

I think perhaps the main reason they defend him is that, to put it simply, he's one of them. They know him, they like him, they identify with him. And since they do, they rationalize their attitudes. After all, you've probably already done a fair amount of rationalizing if you're friendly with a rapist. (Or if you voted to give him an Academy Award.) This is very human; people rationalize their actions every day, only not so visibly. Still, to those of us on the outside, it looks ridiculous and appallingly amoral. Just because you know him, he's charming, intelligent, and can have a good conversation over expensive wine and cheese, because he makes good movies... he shouldn't face prosecution like anybody else who commits a crime? I think these people really don't realize how bad they look, and I hear there's starting to be some backlash in France against the defend-Polanski reflex. A petition signed by over a hundred Hollywood types, requesting that the authorities drop the matter, has been indelibly contaminated by the signature of Woody Allen. The circumstances were very different–Allen's failing was to the best of my recollection a moral one, not a legal one–but the staggering irony of a man who slept with his longtime partner's 19-year-old adopted daughter defending Polanski hardly needs to be emphasized.

Now, the other question is, should he be sent to prison? At age 76, 31 years after the crime? What would be the purpose? Not, as I mentioned earlier, to protect society; France had obviously decided that its society needed no protection from him. Not to give the victim closure; she had publicly said that she had no desire to see him do time. The best argument I can think of would be deterrence, to let bail-jumpers know that they'll never be safe, and they'd better stay under their rock and never travel to another country, even one in which they'd previously been safe. I do think that bail-jumping should be considered a particularly heavy crime, since if everyone did it, there couldn't be a bail system, and some innocent people would languish in jail unnecessarily before and during their trials.

Now, I know each case is unique and deserves to be treated as such, and I've read that there were some irregularities in this one. Particularly, that the prosecution and the defense had worked out a time-served (six weeks) plea bargain, that the judge was going to torpedo. I've seen this characterized as the potential action of a publicity-hungry judge. This may be true; I'm given to understand that it's very rare for judges to interfere in plea deals. But couldn't it be that the judge was honestly disgusted by a rapist getting off with time served? Could a 'normal' defendant have gotten such a deal? I'd need to know more to judge it, and from this distance, I really can't. My best guess, though, is that especially in that time and place, Hollywood types got cushy deals when caught with their hand in the cookie jar, so to speak.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Talking about kids

As an English teacher in a conversation school that focuses on one-to-one lessons, I have plenty of opportunity to talk to Japanese people about any number of topics. While my students are hardly a representative sample of Japanese people in general, I believe I can get a good sense of how Japanese feel about any particular topic by talking to them.

Every now and then, a topic comes up in a lesson that makes me wonder something about Japanese culture and opinion that I don't know, so I ask students about it. A year ago, when such questions came up, I started to ask the same question of almost every student and keep track of the answers. Again, it's not even close to being statistically valid, but I do think one can draw general conclusions from such information.

A month ago, a 35-year-old female student told me that after seven years of marriage, she told her husband that she wanted to have a child. His response, delivered noncommittally, translates in English as 'is that so' or 'I see'. He added nothing more to his response, and she also said nothing more. To Westerners, I'd think, such a minimalist conversation about something so very important would be baffling, but for Japanese, it's not terribly surprising. Japanese are big on indirect communication, using subtext, tone, and body language to convey things they don't want to say clearly.

What did surprise me, even as a long-time resident who understands the culture pretty well, was that these two didn't have a reasonably clear understanding of what the wanted when they got together. In the West, I'd think that almost every couple talks about this before they get married, and even if they don't have a rock-solid agreement, they have a good idea of where the other person stands on the topic. My student said that before marriage she'd talked to her husband very little about it, and it had only been agreed that they would live for a few years without kids, after which the topic would presumably be addressed.

So, I asked many students this question: Did you talk to your future spouse about kids before you got married? (For unmarried students, the question was, do you plan to do so?) I gave them three choices: no talk, casual talk, and serious talk. I broke the students up into three categories: over 40, under 40, and not yet married (most of whom, naturally, are under 40). The results:

Over 40: no talk 9, casual talk 3, serious talk 2
Under 40: no talk 4, casual talk 2, serious talk 2
unmarried: no talk 3, casual talk 6, serious talk 8

Total: no talk 16, casual talk 11, serious talk 12

I did the age break because I expected the result that occurred: that older people would be less likely to have talked about it than younger people. When I asked the older people why they didn't talk about it, the answer was nearly unanimous: no need. Of course we're going to have children, why do we need to talk about it? The unmarried, who are the youngest group, felt that it was an important topic that needed to be discussed. It is true, of course, that many of my unmarried students are women in their mid-30s, and so would need to talk about it for another reason: to determine whether they even want to try to have kids, given the higher risks her age brings.

Naturally, it seems to me that not talking about this brings the risk of getting married and then finding out that your wishes are irreconcilably different (one student told me of a divorce she knew to be for just this reason). Granted, in Japan your chances of finding someone who wants a kid run 90% or higher, but why take a chance when it's so important? This led to another question, which I asked most everyone: Imagine that a couple, around 30, get married but never talk about kids. After a year, the subject finally comes up, and they discover that one of them firmly does not want children. They end up divorcing. The question is: are they equally responsible for the result, or is the one who didn't want kids more responsible, because he/she should have known his partner would think that if he/she didn't want them, he/she would have said something? Is the onus on the one who doesn't want kids to say something? The results: 23 said the one who doesn't want kids is more responsible, while 12 said they were equally responsible. (Interestingly, those who gave the minority response tended to be surprised that they were in the minority.) Age didn't matter; the percentage was the same for each age group.

Many things in Japanese culture are changing, but this one isn't changing much: it's expected that every couple will have at least one child, and if a couple goes childless, it's assumed that they tried but failed. 'Why didn't you have kids?' is a very personal question, and here should only be asked of someone you know quite well. When I tell my students that my wife and I are childless by choice, the normal response is, 'Don't you like children?' I joke that I like other people's kids just fine, but I find it interesting that people would assume that the reason for not having kids is that you don't like them, as opposed to choosing one lifestyle over another. I think most Japanese would find being childless by choice a baffling choice, thus their tendency to blame the one who neglected to mention their wish not to have children.

Part of my survey was about Japanese attitudes towards children, but part was about the fact that Japanese don't like to talk about serious topics, even ones that they really should talk about. For us, if we're in doubt as to whether to talk to our partner about something, the default tendency would be to talk about it. For the Japanese, the tendency is to not do so. You're supposed to know what the other person thinks about something, and it should only be necessary to say something if your opinion is different from the cultural norm. And, of course, your opinion shouldn't be different from the cultural norm.