Archive for January, 2012

There’s very little about any modern system of criminal justice which isn’t controversial. Even cautiously suggesting something like “Crime is bad and it would be good if there were less of it” raises questions about what should constitute a crime, and how good a job the current state of our laws is doing at representing the things we consider socially unacceptable.

One way to reduce crime, as well as to stop people from doing unquestionably criminal things, is to stop labelling certain things people do as “criminal”. In the case of, say, murder, the latter option isn’t really practical; on the other hand, homosexuality and blasphemy have both been considered crimes deserving of harsh punishment in the past, but are widely agreed to be acceptable today.

But even when it comes to acts that we all agree cannot be socially condoned, there are major disagreements in how to respond.

One primitive view of what our criminal justice system is for is that it’s for punishing bad people. A slightly more sophisticated approach might suggest that it’s for punishing people for doing bad things. But if this is really our deepest goal, then the criminal justice system’s implicit intent, regardless of its motivations, is to make things worse.

You stole someone’s wallet? We’re going to steal several years of your freedom. Same if you violently attack someone in the street. If you go far enough, we might even kill you. We’re also doing bad things, but only to people who deserve it, because of the bad things they did.

Obviously this isn’t how we want to see ourselves. We’re acting as noble moral arbiters, stamping out evil in others where we find it. We’re making the world better.

So, maybe the criminal justice system should in fact be for minimising the number of bad things that people do.

You can see why punishing bad people seems to follow from here. It’s an intuitively obvious way of preventing them from doing bad things. If someone does something bad and gets punished, they’ll want to avoid being punished again, so they won’t do so many bad things. It’s one of the most important things we can think of to teach our children. Fear of punishment will also stop many bad things from being done in the first place. Whether it’s flogging, incarceration, or death, people will presumably adapt their behaviour to make sure it doesn’t happen to them.

But just because we’ve had one obvious idea, and it seems to have some merit, that’s no reason to just stop thinking. Are there other things we could do besides punishing criminal acts, which would reduce the amount of bad things people do?

It’s widely accepted that there are. Some of them are pretty far outside the box. But if the only reason we want to punish people is to reduce crime, then we have to consider other things that might also reduce crime.

It’s possible, I suppose, that we have some other reason for wanting to punish people who commit crimes. Maybe it’s fun for us, or we just can’t stand the idea of people who do bad things not suffering any vengeance for it. But that doesn’t sound like something we’d want to accept. We’d be kidding ourselves that our motives were in any way noble and good, if that were the case. We’re not sadists. We only want to punish people when there’s a useful purpose to it.

This is something that’s often lost sight of. Whenever those who make or enforce the law talk about crackdowns or zero-tolerance policies, against criminal behaviour that’s out of control, the justifications are expected to be self-evident. But the leap of logic leaves an important gap. These harsher policies against crime depend on the idea that resolutely cracking down will reduce the amount of crime.

Is that true?

Well, a lot of the time, it seems like you’re not even supposed to ask the question. The way politicians often talk about it, we’re encouraged to make a direct link from our abhorrence of a crime to a demand for harsher retribution, and skip over the question of whether anything will actually be improved by such a policy. In many cases, it evidently won’t be.

Put aside any kneejerk reaction against the idea of criminals getting some kind of “free ride” for a moment. For certain crimes, the numbers clearly show that sending someone to jail makes them more likely to commit more crimes in the future when compared against other options. There are things that we know work better than jail for some offenders.

I’m sure a lot of people who insist on “no free ride” for criminal offenders are acting with society’s best interests at heart. But the fact is, a lot of the policies intended to make sure criminals don’t get a free ride do exactly the opposite of helping.

So, what’s more important: Satisfying our innate, emotional sense of what feels like enough punishment for wrong-doers, or actually reducing the amount of wrong that gets done, and looking at the data scientifically to figure out what will most effectively accomplish that?

To be continued tomorrow, once I’ve figured out exactly where I’m going with this.

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This five-year-old is being outrageously sexualised by bloggers and journalists. That’s according to her mother, who dressed the kid up like Julia Roberts from Pretty Woman for a show called Toddlers & Tiaras, and got her to sing a song called Sexy And I Know It at a nightclub.

– Here’s a graphic which I’d say represents the relative contributions to society made by these people completely fairly.

– “Imagine what we could accomplish” if, like the President suggests, we followed the example of US troops.

– There has to be a better portmanteau available for this than the clunky “sexapocalypse“. Suggestions?

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Nazis, elsewhere

The action’s over on my Other blog tonight, where I’m asking important questions like: Were the Nazis really so bad?

By the time Jews were having their property confiscated as a matter of official policy, they had been successfully othered in the minds of enough Europeans that the Nazis could proceed with their “Final Solution” without any significant uproar.

It was this sort of euphemistic jargon, coupled with all the dehumanising psychological techniques brilliantly employed before and throughout the War, by which people could avoid having to directly address – or even think about – the murder of millions of individuals to which it referred.

Nobody involved in the Third Reich needs to have been an inhuman monster to achieve this. They only made clever use of a number of aspects of human behaviour, of the shameful ways in which we are naturally inclined to act if the circumstances are right.

You should read the whole thing.

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– Newt Gingrich knows what’s wrong with US drug policy: not enough people are being killed for carrying handfuls of marijuana.

Thirteen Observations made by Lemony Snicket while watching Occupy Wall Street from a Discreet Distance.

Nice analysis of a picture which has apparently been doing the rounds lately, being used to suggest that Obama, unlikely his Republican counterparts, is a down-to-earth man of the people. Uh-huh.

– One school in New York has seen a bizarre spate of a rare medical condition among its students, involving tics similar to those characteristic of Tourette Syndrome. They’re investigating the possibility of some kind of chemical poisoning or memetic virus that will enslave humanity.

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So it was National Gay-Straight Alliance Day recently, and as has started to feel like an increasingly regular occurrence lately, I had to go and find some way to oppose this perfectly sensible effort to foster acceptance and compassion.

I haven’t followed the campaign and its associated activities much, so I don’t really know how people spent the day who were noting it. It’s not like there isn’t work for LGBT equality that needs to be done, and I’ve no doubt that a lot of people in “gay-straight alliances” are doing it well.

But the way it’s framed seems misjudged to me. It makes it sound like Gay and Straight are the only two camps available, and that they’re momentarily putting aside their grievances and forming a truce, despite the unavoidable distinction that will always exist between them.

Which I’m sure isn’t what they’re really trying to imply; the actual details on the site do talk about other groups beyond “Gay”, and suggest that their principles should apply “regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity”. It just doesn’t seem like reinforcing the illusion of a strictly binary system of sexuality is something you’d want to do right in the name of your organisation, if all sexualities deserve equality.

Am I being too picky? Obviously I applaud the fundamental intent behind what I suspect most people involved in a GSA are trying to do – promulgate love and compassion, put an end to bigotry based on superficial differences – just like I support the basic sentiment behind liberal drives for higher taxes on the rich – greater rewards and social support for the less well-off labourers and the disadvantaged. But I find myself being rubbed the wrong way by the particular method of marketing tolerance in these “alliances”.

And I can’t stand it when gay people rub me the wrong way.

(I’m so sorry.)

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– Obama’s got some good plans for the country, and I’m sure it’ll work out well. This time.

Rod Liddle wants to become disabled. A less kind observer might offer to help him out with that.

– If you’re only as vaguely aware of the caste system in place in India as I generally am, this article will be fascinating to you.

Probably the best thing I’ve read on the government’s ongoing crusade against the outrageous sums of money being offered to benefits claimants.

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A couple of weeks ago, a particularly intellectual and astute Muslim totally destroyed some heretics’ arguments with his superior powers of logic and deduction. Before they’d even spoken, he conclusively demonstrated that the facts were entirely on his side, and that any rebuttals made by the non-believers would necessarily be false.

By which I mean he threatened them and had a debate cancelled.

Still, I’m sure they were all persuaded. I’m sure that everyone there who might have believed something derogative of the holy Prophet Muhammad – say, that he had multiple wives and had sex with at least one pre-pubescent child – now realises that it’s not true, for the obvious reason that if they were to say that it’s true then they might be violently attacked. To still believe the truth of such a fact, even in the furthest recesses of one’s mind, would be an affront to reason.

So, well done, Islamists with no interest in debate or discovery but who are willing to attack and harm others for crimes of thought. You won in a way that really matters.

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I only discovered Dusty recently, and I’m ready to join his cult. Here he is talking us through the fantastic Christian propaganda of a Chick tract:


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I do not support or endorse Barack Obama.

There. That wasn’t so bad.

This isn’t a topical piece. I’m not reacting to some shocking announcement made in the recent State of the Union address, like that the economy needs to be better or that education is good. He hasn’t done anything new to alienate or upset me.

I’m just doing my best to judge him by his track record. And, right now, I cannot support the guy in any meaningful capacity. Maybe after a bit more time spent at Less Wrong I’ll be able to go further than that, and with less temerity.

What’s prompted me to try writing this is a distressing incongruity I’ve been noticing within my squishy pink skull-contents lately. I value rationality a great deal, and am attempting to practise it more skilfully as an art, and one big honkin’ source of bias is lingering so resolutely that I really need to address it:

To a non-trivial degree, I still personally identify with the “liberal” or “Democrat” in-group.

In practice, what this means is that I have a distinct bias favouring the left and its members in US politics, regardless of any relevant facts I may be asked to consider. While I’m not above praising an individual Republican for something worthwhile, or condemning certain Democrats’ activities, I’ve definitely noticed my opinions starting to form simply based on the subject of a news story, or its source if their political stance is known to me. I feel myself getting either outraged or defensive, based solely on a headline summary, before analysing any of the facts. I seem inclined to presume either that those awful Republicans are being called out for doing something terrible again, or the Democrats are once more being unfairly smeared by some bastard Republicans, and I feel myself taking it personally.

It’s not that I’m a moron (I hope). I’m better once I have a chance to do some actual thinking, but this is about how my brain reacts before I’ve had that chance. And on some level, it still considers the Democrats somehow “my team”.

Which means that it’s easier to maintain and bolster the conceptions I have of what “my team” and “their team” are like. Republicans are homophobic and racist, Democrats are tolerant and progressive. Republicans are war-mongers, Democrats are against unnecessary military action. Republicans want to tax the poor more than the rich, Democrats have much more socialist policies that favour equality.

And while there may be some truth to all this in both their rhetoric and their policies, you have to cherry-pick very selectively if you want to conclude that it’s as easily divided as that.

And once you’ve pledged your allegiance on one side or the other, cherry-picking the data to confirm what you prefer to believe becomes a natural thing to do.

The overall state of US politics lends itself really, really well to this kind of black-and-white thinking and tribalism.

I’m mostly referring to the domination of these two camps, Republican and Democrat, who seem to be constantly at each other’s throats on just about everything, insist on aggressively competing against each other at every opportunity, and of which it’s assumed you must choose one to side with (although more people do seem to be rejecting that idea recently.)

But it’s also true that a lot of Republicans make it really easy to confirm my prejudices against them, and – if I’m not careful – reinforce my allegiance to their opposition.

I mean, Newt Gingrich is an obnoxious ass, whose cruelty and self-serving hypocrisy makes it very easy not to like him. That’s not just my anti-Republican bias talking. He’s terrible. He’s cheated on at least two of his three wives and how dare anyone bring it up when discussing his suitability to lead the country. Ugh. He is an awful man.

Mind you, how bad was it when George Bush was President? That guy who could barely string a sentence together, got the country entrenched in ludicrously extensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and stripped away an unprecedented number of civil liberties with the Patriot Act? He was horrendous.

And then you’ve got Obama, who ran on a platform of change from what went before, who seems like a good guy, a smart guy, who says a lot of the right things, and who I really wanted to win in 2008. And who has reauthorised and expanded on most of Bush’s policies, signed the massively authoritarian National Defense Authorization Act into law, is keeping up the country’s traditions of selling billions of dollars of weapons to Saudi Arabia, has done nothing to prevent the indefinite detention of who knows how many innocent people in Gitmo, has had more innocent people killed in Pakistan by unmanned drone attacks than Bush ever did…

But, y’know. At least he’s not a Republican.

And it has been noted that a Presidential track record like Obama’s is exactly the sort of thing Democrats would leap on to argue the atrocious consequences of having a Republican in the White House.

If I try to ignore the labelling distinction between the two teams, and just look at what Obama’s done, matched up with how I’d want politicians to behave, there’s really nothing to justify maintaining any further support, allegiance, or tribal team spirit for Barack Obama or the Democratic Party in the USA. The only reason I feel inclined to do so is that their outward appearance, viewed through my established set of preconceptions, doesn’t make the bile rise in my throat the way it does when I hear the Republicans talk.

But I’m starting to think that it should.

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– Prejudice against individuals based on their religion is wrong. Pointing out the violence and abuse inherent to Islam is not prejudice.

Citation badly needed.

– People who want abortion to be illegal aren’t even opposed to abortion, if you actually look at the practical effects of their policies. They’re neither pro-life nor anti-abortion. Anti-choice is perhaps the only remaining label that fits.

– The state of “science” TV in the States isn’t looking so hot.

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