Sunday, December 27, 2015

How to Reduce the Flood of Violence

The National Rifle Association tells us that "Guns do not kill people; people do." I have long thought that to be silly; without guns people would be a lot less lethal than they are. No one would be shot and killed if guns did not exist. But it is, of course, also true that the guns, by themselves do not make people kill. We are not violent because we have guns; we have guns because we are violent.
Gun lovers claim they need to be armed to resist a tyrannical government. But unless you are a young man of color or an immigrant without papers, our government is very unlikely to come after you with guns blazing. More likely they will threaten to sue and fine or imprison you. If you want to resist them, you need to hire a lawyer, lose days from work, spend a lot of time and money defending yourself. Investigators will interview your neighbors and embarrass you where you live. They will follow you to your workplace and perhaps make you lose your job. You will not need guns to protect yourself. That is pure fantasy.

But the fantasy, of course, betrays the violent world which you believe you live in and that belief determines how you and many other people see their world as a place of uninterrupted violence. The flood of violent movies and computer games that overwhelm us perhaps maintain the brutal fantasy world in which so many of us live, but are also a symptom of it. So are, of course, the gladiator games enacted on weekend where grown men inflict life-threatening injuries on each other for lots of money.

Symptoms are also the by now almost daily shootings by strangers who kill random people. Many people just buy weapons or go to the shooting range to live out their fantasies. But some, often troubled minds, actually make the violence a reality. What their less troubled fellow citizens just savor in their imaginations, these troubled souls act out. And then another headline announces the death of innocents.

Regulating gun sales is not likely to do improve this torrent of violence. Our problem is much more profound and serious: we are addicted to violence. If we did not have guns we would use knives or clubs to injure each other. For most of us that violence exists only in how we imagine the world. But that imagination spawns one war after the next, and our young men and women fall victim to the bloodthirsty fantasies of the elderly men, who surrounded the previous President, who themselves had carefully avoided real violence by dodging the draft.

In the more than 200 years of our existence as Americans, there was one period of twenty odd years--between World War I and II--when we were at peace. For most of the rest of these two hundred years the interval between wars was about 10 years. Do you know any more bloodthirsty nation, less able to put its weapons down and seek peace?

Violence is deeply embedded in our national character. Is there any way we can change? It seems clear that no single change in our way of life or thinking will transform us into a nation of peacemakers. The best we can hope for is to chip away at this cancer of violence.

Gun control: if a way can be found to keep guns out of the hands of seriously troubled individuals, we might be able to save some lives.

Teaching children to deal positively with conflicts might well be useful, if we tried, at the same time, to lower the level of violence they experience every day. But reducing violence in the experience of children is a large and challenging project. It would involve an end to violent television programs. No more cop shows, no more shootouts whether in inner-city neighborhoods or on the mythical Western frontier towns. No more violent movies where the hero in the ultimate moment saves the world from apocalypse. No more shooter computer games.

If children are to learn to be less violent than we are, we must make sure that their fantasy life is not like ours and that requires cleaning up what we choose to call "entertainment." Equally serious, of course, is assuring children a peaceful family life. That requires a reduction in family violence. It also requires a reduction of violence in sports. Once again sportsmanship has to become important, more important than winning, more important than inflicting serious injuries on your opponent.

Can we do any of this? The changes we need to make are difficult. They would also involve large financial losses for various media companies and major league sports. Will the owners and stockholders of companies that now enrich themselves by purveying violence be willing to move their efforts into different branches of business to make our daily life less violent? Will our politicians be willing to stop preying on the fears of ordinary citizens by endorsing war abroad and police violence at home?

As we send out more New Years cards that say "Peace on Earth" we should consider these questions.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The next generation of American citizens

A while ago, just before Election Day, I asked the students in my college level political philosophy class whether they were going to vote the next day. Out of a class of 30 maybe three or four thought they might go and vote. Some of the others said that they lived far away, or they had just reached voting age and had not registered yet. But by far most of the students said that they did not really know anything about politics and therefore felt unable to participate in the election.

When asked whether they had had civics classes in high school, all of them, without exception, said their high school had not offered any classes explaining our political system and how it works.

This is a familiar fact. Anyone who is at all interested in the lack of political participation of today's youth knows that they have never been taught how our system works or what its history is. They have been told that ours is a free country but no one explained to them that a country where more than half the population is disengaged from political processes cannot really claim to be free anymore.

There are plenty of people with Internet websites who are trying to restore civic education to our schools. But to judge by the small sample of students I talked to about this, these efforts have not been successful--at least not locally.

A frequent explanation of this state of affairs is that in the early years of the century it became clear that our children are not nearly as proficient in their native language and in mathematics and science as children in European countries. Our government therefore began a mighty push to improve language and science education in the form of the "No Child Left Behind" Act. Language and science where on the top of the agenda. The President, Congress and leaders in education simply forgot about civic education.
I suspect that that is a misrepresentation. We are told almost daily that the goal of primary and secondary education in our country is to provide needed workers for American businesses. Hence we need people who are literate and who can do the required arithmetic and simple math called for in a lot of jobs.

Being politically savvy is not necessary for being a good worker. On the contrary citizens who are innocent of knowledge about our political system, how it works, who is powerful, how they get to be powerful, what the role of common people is in our political system, will be much more pliable, more easily befuddled by propaganda about American freedom which we must defend in the hot deserts of Iraq or the craggy mountains of Afghanistan. People with even a modicum of political education would not be taken in by such mendacious propaganda.

If our young people were politically knowledgeable, who would volunteer to fight our wars for oil and domination?

If our young people were politically knowledgeable, they would understand that going and voting is only a small part of their political obligation. They would know to put energy into their unions so that they would make great efforts to defend workers instead of providing cushy jobs for union bureaucrats. They would know that they needed to demonstrate and join together in order to be heard over the loud noise made by billionaires.

That would not be in the billionaires, or even the millionaires interest. Perhaps we no longer have civics classes and our schools because billionaires and millionaires have bought out American democracy and using it for their own purposes. From their vantage point, schools are there to produce a future workforce, not to produce active citizens. Those just get in the way of making our government serve business interests.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

What you always believed about the rich and powerful is really true.

Social psychologists study human behavior but so, of course, does everyone of us. For that reason the results of social psychologists often seem self-evident and not worth the effort of a scientific study. But our own ideas about what human beings do rests on fairly random experiences we have. My own opinions about human behavior often rest on very personal perspectives. Often they are no more than prejudices. I have no really solid evidence for them. The results of the social psychologists, by contrast, are backed up by careful scientific studies and sophisticated statistical analyses of their results.

It is, therefore, really gratifying to find that what I have always believed about the rich and the powerful is not just my own prejudice but is supported by a respectable social psychological research. *

Social psychologists have found that more powerful people tend to think about the world and talk about it in rather abstract terms. That result explains something I had been wondering about for a long time, namely why college presidents and deans, school principals, and politicians tend to talk in abstract clich├ęs which mean very little. People in positions of power promise to "empower" people who are now underdogs. But they never tell us what they're actually going to do which in most cases turns out to be nothing at all. President Bush used to say that "we have freedom" but he was the president who signed the Patriot Act that severely limited the freedom and privacy of citizens. He obviously had not given any thought to what he meant by "freedom." What is Donald Trump promising to do when he tells us that he will America great again?

The powerful tend to feel invulnerable. They do not worry about the consequences of their statements. Some current Republican candidates for the presidency are a fine example of that.

People who are powerful pay less attention to people who are not. They don't pay attention to what their underlings need or want, they're not trying to understand what people with less power are trying to tell them. This explains the ease with which the CEOs of public companies lay off large number of employees. Their own position and the health of their organization on which their position depends is all that they care about. Their employees, the employees’ families, their children and parents count for very little.

The powerful are often contemptuous of the rules. Think of the many illegal or barely legal manipulations of the economy by large banks, large stockbrokers and mortgage companies that brought down the economy in 2008. Our government's assumption that companies "too big to fail" should be given special breaks and that CEOs should be given immunity to some extent justifies the powerful when they act as if the rules did not apply to them.

A slightly scary instance of this was brought to light in a study done at Berkeley, at the University of California, which found that people who drive BMWs or Mercedes are up to four times less likely to stop for pedestrians crossing a crosswalk than people who drive cheaper cars.

In conflicts people who are powerful tend to be inflexible, and domineering. They assume as a matter of course that they are in charge and control how the conflict is to be resolved.

Rich and powerful people are bad news. They are self absorbed and disinterested in the rest of the nation. Whatever happens, they assume that they are the ones who count and should control the situation. They are too good to obey the laws incumbent on the rest of us. Everything is about them and them alone.

If you don't trust the rich and powerful, science supports you in that.

* For the reports on psychological studies see Chapter 2 of Peter T. Coleman and Robert Ferguson, Making Conflict Work (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2014).